The family dinner table can be a place of safety and love, a place at which everyone is nourished physically and emotionally. Surely this is our goal as parents when we gather our family at the table. And yet, even the kindest families sometimes trample through diet culture every time they sit down to eat. It’s no surprise since we are steeped in diet culture, which can be defined as ignoring a body’s natural needs and wants in exchange for a pursuit of weight loss and adherence to a “thin at any cost” mentality.
When we are blinded by diet culture, we cannot imagine that any of the following phrases would be damaging to our children. But they are. Diet culture is a driving factor of eating disorders, and almost every person who has an eating disorder started at some point with the intention to lose weight to better fit standards imposed upon us by diet culture. Many of us who have recovered from eating disorders can remember dinner table conversations that contained the following phrases.
“It’s hard as a parent,” say the authors of Born to Eat. “We get so much information about diet, health, and raising kids. The information never stops and often contradicts our gut instincts. When in doubt, go with conversation and strategies that help our kids maintain the amazing self-regulation tools they’re born with.”
Born to Eat promotes practices that help parents trust their kids’ bodies without imposing diet culture rules and restrictions, which can interfere with our kids’ natural intuitive eating. The central theme is that while parents are responsible for providing food to our children, our children are responsible for the food they actually put in their bodies. This means our kids learn to trust their appetites and cravings and gain independence and confidence that they can follow their intuition when it comes to eating.
But that intuition can be damaged if dinner table conversations are steeped in diet culture. The authors of Born to Eat put together a video and some guidelines about phrases to avoid at the dinner table. “These are just a few phrases that undermine self-regulation,” they say. “In our diet culture, there are so many. We recommend keeping mealtimes pleasant with phrases that support body trust for everyone.”
Five phrases to never say at the dinner table
1. How many calories are in this?
Calories have been weaponized by diet culture as a key tool in the pursuit of weight loss, but they are simply a measure of energy, and a very rough one at that. Calorie counting gives dieters a sense of safety that if they follow some arbitrary rules about counting calories, they will get and stay slim. However, weight is not as simple as calories in and calories out. When we talk about calories at the dinner table, we are endorsing diet culture and undermining natural eating, which is the healthiest way in which to eat. We want our kids to be able to self-regulate and eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Artificially controlling food through calorie counting is the opposite of our goal as parents.
2. That’s not on my diet
This statement reveals a firm belief in diet culture and controlling one’s diet for the sake of body control. The idea that certain foods are forbidden, just like calorie-counting, is a firm element of all diets, and undermines natural, intuitive eating. Just as calorie counting suggests a fear of calories, saying that certain foods are “off limits” show a fear of certain foods. A healthy relationship with food and body is rooted in accepting that all foods are acceptable for healthy bodies. With the exception of medical complications such as actual allergies, most people can eat all foods without fear. In fact, science has shown that restricting certain foods tends to lead to eventual binge-eating those foods. It appears that food cravings are a natural part of our body’s communication with us, and ignoring food cravings most often results in a backlash at some point. Diet talk doesn’t belong at the table, or anywhere really.
3. This is so fattening!
The idea that any particular food is more “fattening” than others is clear diet talk. To say that specific foods are fattening suggests 1) that gaining weight is bad; and 2) that certain foods should be considered “off limits” or, at least, “cheating” on a diet. Fear of living in a larger body (AKA: being “fat”) is a direct contributor to most eating disorders. Parents who openly fear becoming “fat” are risking their children’s health, especially during periods of life when weight gain is completely natural and normal. For example, girls may gain up to 40 lbs in preparation for menstruation. If a child has been raised in an environment of fearing weight gain, she may see natural, healthy biological processes as a sign of being bad or unhealthy. Additionally, fat itself is a necessary macronutrient that helps us feel satisfied and provides energy for the body to use. Every body needs fat in its diet, and children don’t need to hear fear-based statements about any essential macronutrient.
4. Are you really going to eat that?
Commenting on what anyone else puts in their body means that we are inserting ourselves in an area in which we have no business being. Mind your own plate! A core component of raising healthy, natural eaters is to recognize that while we as parents can decide what goes on our child’s plate, we should never tell them what they put in their bodies. That is their prerogative and a key element of Division of Responsibility. When parents ask questions about whether someone is going to eat something it demonstrates an underlying criticism of that person’s food choice. This applies whether the food is going into your child’s mouth or that of any other person. Criticizing what someone eats is never OK if we want to build children who are able to self-regulate and have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
5. Why don’t you finish that, it’s only a few more bites?
The flip side of insinuating that someone is eating too much is insisting that someone clean their plate or finish something they are eating from a misguided sense of avoiding wastefulness or increasing “health” by eating all vegetables or similar foods that have been deemed healthy. Parents who want to build self-regulation need to always trust that a child (or any person) is capable of determining when to continue and when to stop eating. This applies to all foods without prejudice. A child is very capable of determining when their tummy feels full, and a parents’ external measurement should never override the child’s intuition. Yes, it may mean your child is hungry again in a little while, so what? Never sacrifice a child’s self-regulation for convenience. This is where using the Division of Responsibility can really help! Living in diet culture means that all people are constantly bombarded with messages of ignoring natural hunger cues, but we can help our kids’ maintain their inborn sense of hunger and fullness by never messing with their sense of when they are “done.”
“These are just a few phrases that undermine self-regulation,” say the authors of Born to Eat. “In our diet culture, there are so many. We recommend keeping mealtimes pleasant with phrases that support body trust for everyone.”
Born to Eat is a book for parents about eating. Eating is an innate skill that has been overcomplicated by marketing schemes and a dieting culture. It’s time to leave the dieting culture behind for the whole family. It starts with the baby’s first bite! Learn more by following the authors on Instagram.
Leslie Schilling, MA, RDN is a nationally recognized registered dietitian & nutrition expert. She’s been featured in Women’s Health, BuzzFeed, Yahoo News, the Huffington Post, USNews, and on HGTV. Leslie is a self-proclaimed anti-diet dietitian who teaches health through self-care and pleasurable eating. When she’s not cooking with her family, she’s likely shopping for ingredients near her home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist. She is the coauthor of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook For Dummies and Adrenal Fatigue For Dummies. As with all military spouses, she wears many hats, but her favorite is her role as a mama. She splits her time between Austin, Texas; San Diego, California; and Europe.