Don’t Talk To Your Child About Dieting: Here’s Why

What can you do to prevent your child from developing an eating disorder? Help your child develop a healthy body AND a healthy body image.

Eating disorders in kids

In the US, eating disorders are a serious risk factor for our children. In fact, 23% of girls and 6% of boys will develop an eating disorder by the time they are teenagers. Luckily, parents have a lot more power than they realize to prevent eating disorders, however intervention works best when it starts early. Intervening in adolescence, when kids need to assert their right to control their own bodies, is more complicated and less effective.

What can you do to prevent your child from developing an eating disorder? Help your child develop a healthy body AND a healthy body image.

1. Consider your attitude toward your own body

I hope you LOVE your body, every inch of it, no matter how it looks in the mirror. But most of us have been influenced by our culture’s obsession with thin, and we judge ourselves harshly. So when we see our child starting to put on weight, all our self-judgment kicks in, and we project it onto our child, worrying that she’ll have a life-long struggle with her weight. Unfortunately, our kids pick up on our fear, and they assume something’s wrong with them. So use this as an opportunity to develop a healthier relationship with your own body, so you don’t perpetuate that feeling of shame and “not good enough” onto another generation.

2. Educate your child about how the media perpetuates unrealistic images

Point out that all the models on the magazine covers have been Photoshopped; they simply aren’t real. Terrific videos to show your daughter — and son! — are the Dove Evolution of Beauty Video (an ordinary young woman air-brushed into a billboard model) and’s The PhotoShop Effect (showing how pervasive photoshop is, and how it has created an unrealistic standard of beauty against which we all judge ourselves.) Discuss the fact that people with bodies that meet cultural standards of desirability are not any happier.

3. Commit yourself to model good eating habits

Face it — Whatever you do, they’ll do. If you drink soda, they’ll drink soda. If you snack on that ever-present bowl of carrots, so will they. If this seems to you like deprivation, consider that your bad food habits are a sad legacy for your child. Are you willing to change, to protect your child? Your increased health, vitality and good looks will reward you as much as your children asking for more carrots.

4. Don’t talk about dieting

In fact, don’t diet, just eat healthfully, and make exercise an automatic part of life for everyone in the family. Dieting, research tells us, doesn’t work; it creates feelings of deprivation and longing that cause binge eating. And it changes body chemistry so that not only do dieters almost always regain the weight, but losing it the next time is even harder. Only long-term healthy eating and exercising helps people not only lose weight, but keep it off.

Want to teach your child self-control? Start with the idea of listening to your body: “Are you hungry for more?” When your child wants sweets, instead of just saying no, which can build up feelings of deprivation, assure your child that sweets will be available another time: “The bakery is always here…we go there for special occasions, not every day.” Research shows this reduces longings and binges, instead making us feel empowered to make healthy choices.

5. Learn the latest in nutrition

The percentage of overweight Americans has more than doubled over the past century and has continued to rise, accompanied by similar rises in incidence of disease. Culprits include our sedentary lifestyle, high stress levels, large food portions, our addiction to sugar, and our evolutionary propensity to eat (and store) extra food in times of plenty just in case lean times are around the corner.

But nutritionists increasingly suspect that processed foods are the biggest contributor to our weight issues. Consumption of saturated fat has actually decreased during this period of extreme weight gain, while consumption of processed foods has increased dramatically. Designed to last during long periods of storage and shipping, and with taste rather than nutrition in mind, foods with hydrogenated oils, preservatives, corn syrup and carbohydrates stripped of their nutrients are simply bad for our bodies. They create chronic disease as we get older. But they start, even in childhood, by causing inflammation and cravings.

And, of course, most processed foods have added sugar. In fact, in the U.S., most adults get more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar, which has negative effects on the entire body, including influencing hormones to make more fat than other carbs do.

6. Throw out the junk food

Throw out the junk food. It’s bad for everyone in the family. And if kids see others eating it, it’s too hard for them to resist. They’ll eat what’s around, and sneak it if they have to. Many teenage girls get started on a bulimic pattern by sneaking their parents’ ice cream and then vomiting.

7. Keep trying to get them to eat their veggies

No self respecting child tries a new food the first time she sees it. But eventually, she’s likely to. That’s why kids who are exposed to more foods are more sophisticated eaters. Studies show that the major predictor in children’s willingness to eat a food is familiarity.

8. Get your child involved in sports

Every child needs a regular physical activity. When girls get involved with sports, they have a healthier attitude toward their bodies for life. When kids find a sport they love when they’re younger, they’re much more likely to stay fit for life. Instead of communicating that we exercise to tame body fat, explain that exercise keeps us healthier and happier in every way, by changing our body chemistry. Insist on family physical activity every weekend, and get moving with your child.

9. Never comment on other people’s bodies

If you’re always saying how thin someone looks, or how fat, your child learns that body shape is what’s important, and she feels like people are always looking at HER body.

10. Reduce TV use

Children who watch two hours of television each day are much more likely to grow into overweight adults with high cholesterol. It may be that advertising has as much to do with this correlation as inactivity. US obesity specialist David Ludwig says recent research strengthens the case for a ban on food advertising aimed at children:

“In an era when childhood obesity has reached crisis proportions, the commercial food industry has no business telling toddlers to consume fast food, soft drinks and high-calorie low-quality snacks — all products linked to excessive weight gain.”

Did you know that in most countries, it’s illegal to market to kids, including with TV ads?

11. Accept your child exactly as they are

Every child needs to be loved unconditionally. Never, in any way, communicate to your child that you think they would be more attractive, more acceptable, or more loveable if they had a different body shape. Instead, clearly communicate that what matters is who we are inside and the choices we make about how we show up in the world.


Published with permission from Aha! Parenting by Dr. Laura Markham. 

Dr. Laura Markham trained as a Clinical Psychologist, earning her PhD from Columbia University.  But she’s also a mom, so she translates proven science into the practical solutions you need for the family life you want.

Dr. Laura is the author of the books Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings:How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. For more information, visit