Eating Disorder Prevention: Here’s 8 common mistakes parents make about weight, food and body image.

Most of my clients have spent decades including their childhood at war with their bodies. They have been told by everyone around them that their appetites and hungers cannot be trusted. That their bodies are a problem. The pressures of diet culture are insidious and can create a lifetime of disordered eating and for some, a more serious eating disorder.

We know from research that children who feel bad about their body size and go on diets to control i.e., shrink their bodies, are at about three times greater risk for developing binge eating, weight gain and other eating disorders, compared to their non-dieting counterparts.  

Eating disorders can be prevented and it starts in childhood. It’s critical that we encourage kids to feel at home in their bodies. To feel good and safe in their bodies.

Helping children to feel good about their bodies in this fat-phobic culture is not an easy task. And, yet, we must fight back against the harmful messages of diet culture.

Our beliefs about our bodies are learned. Children are born LOVING their bodies. At some point, they begin to absorb negative attitudes about bodies. They pick up on messages in the media, on the playground, as these messages are passed down – often unintentionally.

While we can’t control all of the messages our children will receive, we can do our best to make sure we aren’t contributing to the negative ones.  

Here are 8 common mistakes parents make about their children’s weight, food and body image. And, what to do instead so that our children feel supported no matter what their size. 

1. Criticizing your body in front of your children

Children inherently love and accept their bodies. They dance around freely, unconcerned about their size or shape. However, negative body beliefs are learned, often influenced by societal and media messages. The idea that thinness is superior to other body sizes is a bias ingrained in a culture that profits from perpetuating this belief (as evident from the thriving diet culture, worth around 80 billion dollars!).

As a parent, you hold tremendous power as a role model. Your child learns from your actions and words, for better or worse. When you criticize your own body by saying things like, “These jeans make me look fat,” or “I need to lose weight before I can wear a bathing suit,” your child internalizes the message that weight loss is desirable and weight gain is undesirable.

Instead, consider this approach: the next time you stand in front of the mirror, choose to say something positive or refrain from making negative comments altogether. For example, you might say, “I love how this dress flows on me; it’s fun to wear and so comfortable.”

Admittedly, this can be challenging if you have struggled with your own body image. Speaking positively to yourself in the mirror may feel impossible at first. In such cases, start by minimizing negative self-talk and being mindful of the words you use. Your child is listening, so if you feel compelled to make a comment, strive to be positive, even if it doesn’t feel completely true. Practicing kindness and positivity when discussing your body in front of your child is crucial. They need to understand that body positivity isn’t dependent on size, shape, or weight. Together, celebrate what makes each of you unique as you stand before the mirror, fostering a sense of self-worth and acceptance.

2. Laughing at fat jokes

Unfortunately, fat people continue to be the target of jokes in our society. Laughing at jokes that shame others based on their size sends a harmful message to children. It normalizes making fun of a child with a higher weight on the playground, and those children receive the hurtful message that their weight is something to be ashamed of.

Weight-based bullying is the most prevalent form of bullying in schools. Participating in fat jokes perpetuates this bullying culture, granting permission to mock peers based on their weight. It also instills in children the belief that as adults, we find it acceptable to single out individuals based on physical characteristics that differ from our own. This promotes an attitude of intolerance and disrespect towards others.

Instead, let’s approach these situations as teachable moments. Whenever a joke about fat bodies arises, seize the opportunity to share your values about size diversity with your child. Depending on their age, help them understand that these jokes are rooted in stereotypes, which unfairly make assumptions about fat individuals. Teach them that weight-based jokes hurt people’s feelings and contribute to weight stigma. Emphasize that everyone, including themselves, deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

Humor is a wonderful outlet, so feel free to share jokes that genuinely make you laugh. By doing so, you demonstrate that humor can be inclusive and uplifting, rather than hurtful or discriminatory. Encourage your child to appreciate the qualities that make each person unique, beyond their physical appearance, and to foster a sense of empathy and acceptance for all.

3. Too much focus on your child’s weight 

If you talk to folks who were overweight as children, you’ll often hear stories about the comments adults made regarding their bodies. They heard things like, “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight,” or “No one will want to date you if you’re fat.” 

This over-focus on weight from a very early age creates a deep sense of shame that is insidious and enduring. The messages we send to kid’s is that they only way they can achieve success and happiness is from the pursuit of a thinner body. 

Instead, let’s shift the focus off weight entirely. Celebrate other qualities that go beyond the physical. What characteristic do you appreciate about them? What about their accomplishments or aspirations? What lights them up? What makes them shine? These internal qualities are far more powerful and give us so much more meaning and purpose than body size alone. 

Let’s create a culture where children get the message that their personal worth and value as a human is not based solely on their body. Teach them to value kindness, creativity, resilience and a willingness to learn. Celebrate their passions to build a strong foundation of self-worth that is independent of their physical appearance.

4. Treating children differently based on their size

It’s unfortunate that some children experience different treatment based on their size even within their own families. For example, one child in the family is fatter than their sibling, and the fatter kid is required to exercise daily while their thinner sibling is not. Or, maybe the fatter kid isn’t allowed a second helping of dessert but their thinner sibling is allowed.  This kind of singling out of kids based on their weight is incredibly harmful and leads to intense and enduring feelings of shame and negative belief that their bodies are a problem and they can’t be trusted. 

Instead, let’s strive for fairness and equality. Determine age-appropriate behaviors for your children and apply them consistently to all kids, regardless of their size (unless there is a specific health or mental health concern that necessitates differentiation). All kid’s deserve to move their bodies as much or as little as they want to, and all kid’s deserve to have a second helping of dessert no matter their size. 

Let your children know that their worth and value are not determined by the size of their bodies, and that they are all deserving of love, respect, and fair treatment.

5. Comments or compliments about people’s weight

We’ve all heard comments like “You look great – have you lost weight?” or behind someone’s back: “I can’t believe how much weight he/she/they have gained.” Sometimes, we may have even made these comments ourselves. 

When our children hear these words, they learn what society values in terms of body size and that it’s acceptable to judge others based on their appearance. Comments like these create a breeding ground for body shame that can last a lifetime. 

It’s best to say nothing about someone’s weight or body size. If someone you know has lost weight and is seeking a compliment, consider expressing something that is related to your connection and friendship instead of their body size.

It’s time that we model that bodies, including theirs, are not up for discussion or scrutiny. Period. 

If however, children want to discuss the topic of weight, it’s important to create safe spaces for open and non-judgmental conversations that respect and embrace body diversity. Be a role model to help cultivate body acceptance and self-love.

6. Promoting Dieting Behaviors via “diet talk”

Have you ever heard or said out loud, “I can’t eat that, there’s too many carbs in that.” Or, “Screw it, I’ll eat that now and start over Monday with my new diet.” It’s unfortunately normal to talk about dieting in this culture. 

It’s estimated that up to 50% of American’s are dieting on any given day! It seems normal! BUT, here’s the thing. Diet talk reinforces the message that it’s normal and okay to deprive ourselves of enjoying food in order to control our body size. Normalizing and engaging in diet talk reinforces that trying to control our appetites and weight is a positive endeavor. Even dieting in the name of “health” may seem innocent but it still reinforces the notions that bodies can’t be trusted.

Many children are also told that they shouldn’t eat the cookie or pizza because it’s “fattening.” Children absorb the message that weight loss is a worthy goal, despite the fact that kids who diet are at greater risk of weight gain, binge eating, and other eating disorders, compared to their non-dieting counterparts.

Instead of talking about your latest diet or whatever cleanse you’re thinking of going on, keep it to yourself, or better yet, don’t diet! Unhook any associations between eating food and weight/body size. 

Adults often have their own issues with food and body image because they, too, have absorbed cultural messages that overvalue thinness. If you’re struggling to let go of dieting and or body shame, consider reading the book, Reclaiming Body Trust or Intuitive Eating. It’s never too late to learn how to have a more positive relationship with food and your body.

7. Labeling foods in terms of “good” and “bad” 

There is a lot of emphasis on “healthy” eating nowadays, which can incite confusion on how best to feed our children. Diet trends such as low-carb, gluten-free etc. only add to this confusion as well as judgments. We may feel like we fall short to do it “right.” While it’s important for kids to have access to nutritious foods, it’s just as important for them to enjoy foods because they are fun and taste good, even if not “nutritious.”

It’s no surprise in our diet obsessed culture that many children (adults too!)  are unfortunately developing an obsession with “healthy” eating. This often masks disordered eating behaviors or a more serious eating disorder. This obsession with healthy eating encourages avoidance of “bad” foods which doesn’t foster a balanced and joyful relationship to food. When we judge foods as “good” or “bad” it’s sets in motion a dieting mentality which disrupts us from the wisdom of what our bodies truly want and need to feel nourished.

For many dieters, viewing foods in terms of good or bad, tends to promote over indulgence of the “bad” foods. I remember as a kid going over to my friends house where she had a drawer full of hostess cupcakes. Because hostess products weren’t allowed in my home as a kid, I bet you can image that when I went over to her house, I went CRAZY with those cupcakes. I ate so many I came back home for dinner and didn’t feel like eating my Mom’s healthy balanced home cooked meal! 

Instead, let’s focus on teaching our children how to have a healthy , balanced and neutral relationship with food that goes beyond labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Encourage them to recognize and honor their physical hungers as well as what foods feel satisfying to eat. Provide a wide variety of all types of foods and trust your kid to determine what and how much to eat.

When discussing food, let’s teach children that some foods are more nutritious (have vitamins/minerals) and support their bodies in growing strong, while other foods may be less nutritious but taste good and give us Vitamin P (Pleasure). 

If you have concerns about the connection between health and weight, consider exploring the Health at Every Size approach. This way, you can support your child’s health and well-being without focusing solely on their weight.

By promoting food neutrality, we can help our children develop a more balanced and joyful relationship with food. 

8. Linking exercise for weight loss 

It’s common to hear “I better work out extra hard tomorrow if I’m going to eat this burger and fries!”, or, “I really need to start a new workout to get that beach body.” Unfortunately, these messages teach our children that exercise is a form of punishment for consuming the “wrong” foods. That we must somehow compensate if we ruined our diet with exercise. 

Linking exercise with weight loss as the goal, promotes the message that exercise is mainly intended to control the size and shape of one’s body. When we think exercise can and should control the size of our bodies, this disrupts our natural love of movement. Children are born loving to move their bodies (if they are able bodied) because it innately feels good to move and it’s a source of play. 

Let’s embrace “Joyful movement” which is about moving our bodies however we want to and because it feels good to move and sweat. There are many activities to engage in that count as “exercise” and promote fitness without it feels like it’s compensating in some way. If weight were off the table, how would you want to move your body? Let’s encourage our children to embody physical movement for the sake of pleasure and enjoyment. 

If we want to prevent eating disorders, we need to look at body weight as a characteristic that is largely out of our direct control.

Bodies are diverse. They come in ALL shapes and sizes.

Body size is largely influenced by genetics, and assuming that certain body sizes are inherently healthier can be detrimental, particularly to fat children. Just as children have no control over their height, or the color of their skin, they also do not have the ability to choose their weight range, body size and shape.

Recognizing the role of genetics and individual differences in determining body size is essential for promoting inclusivity and respecting the diverse range of human bodies. 

By acknowledging and celebrating genetic diversity, we can create a more inclusive and accepting environment for all children, regardless of their body size. Let’s protect fat children from harmful weight stigma. The size and shape and weight of fat children is largely beyond their control.

When we see a fat child and think they need to lose weight in order to be healthy, we encourage them to go on diets which only actually leads to weight gain. (The biggest predictor of weight gain is dieting). We add to their shame and stigma of being in a larger body. All of this leads to poor health outcomes. Furthermore, weight is a characteristic, not a behavior. Doesn’t it make sense to focus on behaviors instead of weight? 

As we strive to teach our children to appreciate and celebrate diversity in areas such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, it is equally important to include discussions that appreciate the natural diversity of body shape and size.

It’s crucial to have conversations with our kid’s about body size and shape, emphasizing that every body is unique and deserving of respect and acceptance.

If you find that you carry your own internalized weight stigma, know that you are not alone. Most everyone in this culture to some extent has internalized this weight bias. Until you learn about the Body Trust and Intuitive Eating movement, it is nearly impossible to think otherwise. 

This is a lifetime journey of learning and unlearning. We can heal from our own internalized weight bias, but it takes time and a willingness to challenge the status quo. 

We can give our children the gift of acceptance and compassion when it comes to fighting against the oppressive force of diet culture. We can dream of a world where ALL bodies feel safe to take up as much space as they want and need.

If you want more support either for yourself or your child, reach out. I’ve been working with eating disorders since 2005, and can help you navigate this important issue. Schedule your free discovery call here.

Much love,

Karen Louise, MA, RDN (your anti-diet dietitian)

This article has been adapted from the original article written by Judith Matz

Photo credit: Anna Kumysheva @ Getty Images

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