What to do instead of putting your child on a diet

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. Maybe 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. 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 even consider putting your child on a diet:

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

Approximately 95-98% of all dieters who lose weight will regain lost pounds. They often end up weighing more than they did pre-diet. [2] This is not a secret. Intentional weight loss fails 95% of the time. It fails in children, in teens, in young adults, in adults, and in the elderly. Intentional weight loss fails whether it’s called a diet, a lifestyle change, a wellness program, or a weight management program.

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 think they should lose weight. Stop criticizing people who regain weight because they “don’t have the willpower” to “stick with it.” 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

About half of dieters will weigh more 4-5 years post-diet than they did before they dieted. [3] A single episode of intentional weight loss increases the odds of weighing more by 2x in men and 3x in women. [4]

Allowing or encouraging your child to go on a diet is a terrible choice. This includes food restriction and the addition of exercise with the goal of weight loss. 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. Every time they intentionally lose weight, these side effects increase. Ultimately, intentional weight loss places a greater burden on their health than their original weight trajectory ever would have.

3. Diets lead to eating disorders

A child on a diet is susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Almost every eating disorder began as a diet.

Since it has been normalized in our society, parents believe that dieting behavior is healthy, but it is decidedly not. Dieting is supported by the $70 billion diet industry. Even our trusted healthcare providers have been infected by the belief that intentional weight loss is possible and healthy. But it’s not (see above).

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]

Due to our societal obsession with weight loss, most 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.

What to do instead of putting your child on a diet

Putting your child on a diet will negatively impact their health for life. Consider the four following parenting steps that will positively impact your child’s health.

1. Focus on sleep

Lack of sleep is associated with many health conditions. 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 during the teen years when the brain is undergoing a massive transformation is serious.

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. This 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 most important: trust that your child will eat food in a quantity that is correct for their own body.

We don’t need to put our child on a diet or control or restrict food, even “tempting” foods like M&Ms and potato chips. When people aren’t restricted, they naturally eat a variety of foods rather than binge eating sweets and treats when they get the opportunity. This is called Intuitive Eating, and it’s been scientifically proven to be more healthy than dieting.

With 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. It builds connection and emotional well-being. It will improve your child’s long-term health.

3. Move together

Many studies have shown that movement and physical fitness are more important 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 higher-weight people who are fit/active are just as healthy, in many cases healthier, than lower-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. You ask your child to bathe and brush their teeth every day. You can also support intentional movement 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 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

Emotional hygiene requires that we learn to process our emotions in healthy, adaptive ways. Many mental disorders are treated by teaching emotional hygiene. With practice, a person can learn to process emotions fluidly rather than suppressing or numbing them. A lack of emotional hygiene 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.


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate difficult parenting situations.


References

[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

Leave a Reply