What diets do to children, and what to do instead of putting your child on a diet

Are you thinking that your child is getting chubby and needs to go on a diet? Or maybe your child has always been on the high end of the weight chart, and you’ve been desperately telling them to “eat less/move more” for years. Is your child begging you to support them in following a strict Paleo, Whole30, Weight Watchers, or other “lifestyle program?” Whatever your reason for considering intentional weight loss for your child, please STOP.

Prescribing weight loss has been called unethical in the Journal of Obesity because dieting leads to weight regain and weight cycling, both of which are strongly connected to poor health and well-being. [1] Here are three facts you need to know before you support any form of weight loss for your child:

1. 95% of people who intentionally lose weight gain it back.

Approximately 95-98% of all dieters who lose weight will regain lost pounds and often end up weighing more than they did pre-diet. [2] This is not a secret. Diets fail 95% of the time. They fail in children, in teens, in young adults, in adults, and in the elderly.

Imagine your doctor prescribed a drug that had terrible side effects and a 5% success rate. You would laugh in their face. Imagine you bought a car that only worked 5% of the time. Would you blame the person driving? No, you would blame the car.

Intentional weight loss doesn’t work. Period. Stop criticizing people (including yourself) because you believe the lie that the problem with diets is that people “can’t stick to it” or “don’t have the willpower.” You’re talking about 95% of the population. This is not a problem with people – it’s a problem with the pursuit weight loss.

2. Diets result in weight gain.

The most rigorous diet studies show that about half of dieters will weigh more 4-5 years post-diet than they did before they dieted. [3] A single episode of deliberate weight loss increases the odds of becoming overweight by 2x in men and 3x in women. [4]

Allowing your child to diet, which includes any form of food restriction or the addition of exercise with the goal of losing weight, is a terrible thing for a parent to do. It disrupts your child’s psychological and physical development for LIFE.

People who have intentionally lost weight immediately increase the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in their bodies and decrease their metabolisms long-term [5]. This means they need to eat less food for the rest of their lives to maintain the weight at which they were before they began dieting. Every time they intentionally lose weight, these side effects increase, ultimately placing a greater burden on their health than their original weight trajectory ever would have.

3. Diets lead to eating disorders.

If they have a certain temperament and genetic underpinnings, a child who diets is susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Almost every eating disorder began as a diet. Dieting is a national pastime, and it is virtually impossible to exist in Western Society and avoid being exposed to pro-diet messages.

Since it has been normalized in our society, parents believe that dieting behavior is healthy, but it is decidedly not. Powerful advertising and lobbying by the $70 billion diet industry have put policies and procedures in place at every level that promote dangerous weight loss efforts. This means that despite all the evidence, parents don’t know that allowing a child to diet is bad for their kid’s health.

51% of girls 9 and 10 years old say they feel better about themselves when they are dieting. [6] In no society in the world should that be considered normal, healthy, or natural, because it’s not. More than 35% of people who go on a diet progress to pathological dieting and 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders. [7]

Eating disorders occur in both boys and girls, and the vast majority of people who have dangerous and health-damaging eating disorders do not “look” like they have an eating disorder. Clinical anorexia, in which a person becomes medically underweight, is actually the rarest form of eating disorder. Parents must become educated about eating disorders so they can recognize the signs, act quickly, and prevent them from growing.

What to do instead of putting your child on a diet

Instead of putting your child on a dangerous diet, which will negatively impact their health for life, consider the five following parenting steps that will positively impact your child’s health.

1. Focus on sleep

Lack of sleep is associated with many health conditions, and the scientific evidence linking sleep to health is far stronger than that linking weight to health. While many parents obsess about their kids’ sugar intake and weight, few obsess about their kids’ sleep cycles. Lack of sleep puts kids (and adults) at higher risk of depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, psychosis, stroke, obesity, and more. [8, 9]

A 2017 study found that about 40% of teenagers in 2015 received less than 7 hours of sleep per night. [10] This indicates a worrying trend that has been on the rise for decades. Individual electronics and the Internet are taking a huge toll on sleep, and even when teens do fall asleep, many wake several times through the night to respond to incoming text messages. Lack of sleep and disrupted sleep, especially during the teen years when the brain is undergoing a massive transformation, is a serious concern.

Parents who institute an early bedtime, turn off the wireless, and remove devices during sleeping hours are considered monsters by their teens, but that is often the only way to balance the teenager’s lack of impulse control and the temptations of technology with the very real need for sleep.

2. Provide a positive food environment

Unfortunately, our current food culture takes an all or nothing stance on “healthy” and “junk” food, and that is decidedly not healthy. Parents should neither serve donuts and chips all day nor kale and broiled chicken all day. Instead, serve a balance of foods that are both nutritious and tasty, and, here’s the kicker: trust that your child will eat the right food in a quantity that is correct for their own body.

It may surprise you to learn that many of us have raised our children following this approach and our kids balance their own diets in a way that is nutritionally healthy. We don’t need to control or restrict anything, even “tempting” foods like M&Ms and potato chips. Because they aren’t restricted, our kids naturally eat a variety of foods rather than binge eating sweets and treats when they get the opportunity. It has been shown consistently that restricting foods leads to binge eating. For more on this, read Ellyn Satter’s work about Division of Responsibility and learn about Intuitive Eating.

Once you have mastered Division of Responsibility and Intuitive Eating, you can focus more on how your kids eat than what and how much they eat. This requires you to actually sit down and eat with your children. Take time every day, for as many meals as possible, to eat with your child. Foster a pleasant atmosphere and nourish your child’s soul as you nourish their body. Spending time over food is an ancient and healthy human tradition, and it builds connection and emotional well-being that will improve your child’s long-term health.

3. Move together

Many studies have shown that mortality is more strongly associated with movement and physical fitness than body weight. People can be healthy at high weights, and this is especially true if they are physically active. In fact, it is better to live at a high weight and be physically active than it is to be at a low weight and be sedentary. Several studies have found that “overweight or obese individuals who are fit/active tend to have morbidity and mortality rates that are at least as low, and in some cases lower, than normal weight individuals who are unfit/inactive.” [11]

The important mind shift is to stop thinking of exercise as a weight loss activity, because it’s not. [12] Instead see it as an element of basic health and hygiene. Just as you ask your child to bathe and brush their teeth every day, you can ask them to intentionally move for at least 20 minutes every day.

Exercise does not lead to weight loss any more than brushing teeth leads to weight loss, but both make a significant impact on health. This doesn’t need to be intense, unpleasant exercise or a gym workout – walking at a moderate pace for 20 minutes every day is a great health-promoter. Bonus points if you can find ways to move together as a family. Go for walks together on weekdays, and plan weekend excursions that involve movement. Make the focus of this time family bonding, not weight loss, and the health benefits will be tremendous.

4. Teach emotional hygiene

While most parents have attempted to work on the previous three elements of parenting, few have considered the importance of teaching children emotional hygiene. It’s no surprise since very of us were taught emotional hygiene by our own parents. Emotional hygiene requires that we learn to process our emotions in healthy, adaptive ways. Many mental disorders, including eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, and sexual addiction are treated by teaching the person to process emotions fluidly rather than suppressing or numbing them. In addition to driving many dangerous addictive behaviors, a lack of emotional hygiene also been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a suppressed immune system. [13]

The first step in teaching kids emotional hygiene is to learn it ourselves. If possible, get some help from a professional who can help you learn to accept and process feelings as they arise. Practice this with a partner or friend – be honest about how you are feeling and describe your emotions using feeling words. Introduce the concept to your kids, and practice together. Build your emotional vocabulary with new words to define emotional states. Learning to process feelings with the people you love is a messy, difficult process, but it will bring you closer and impart huge health benefits for everyone.


[1] Tylka, et. al, The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss, Journal of Obesity, July 2014

[2] Matz, Frankel, The Diet Survivor’s Handbook

[3] Mann, Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again

[4] Pietilainen, Does dieting make you fat? A twin study, International Journal of Obesity, 2012

[5] Fothergill, et al., Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition, Obesity, Aug 2016

[6] LM, Irwin CE & Scully S, Disordered eating characteristics in girls: A survey of middle class children, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 1992

[7] Pathological dieting, precursor to eating disorder, Philadelphia Eating Disorder Examiner, July 18, 2011

[8] Taheri, S. et al., Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index, PLoS Medicine,Dec 2004

[9] Mary A. Carskadon, Sleep in adolescents: the perfect storm, Pediatric Clinics of North America, June 2011

[10] Twenge, et al., Decreases in self-reported sleep duration among U.S. adolescents 2009-2015 and links to new media screen time, Sleep Medicine, Nov 2017

[11] Paul D. Loprinzi: Application of the “Fat-but-Fit” paradigm in predicting 10-yr risk for an atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) event using the pooled cohort risk equations among US adults, International Journal of Cardiology, Jan 1, 2016

[12] Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight, explained with 60+ studies, Vox, Oct 2017

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