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How to teach kids about diet culture

What parents and educators need to know about diet culture, by Dana Suchow

Diet culture is something we want to teach kids about since it’s a major cause of negative health outcomes and eating disorders. The truth is that we live in a diet culture that promotes and admires dieting and food restriction. Yet this culture makes us sick. And worse, it makes our kids sick. 

There are two main facts that drive me to ask parents to teach kids about diet culture: 

  1. Diet culture is associated with worse health. Intentional weight loss achieved by dieting results in weight regain 95% of the time and additional weight gain 65% of the time. This is called weight cycling, which increases risk of disease substantially.
  2. Diet culture is a major cause of eating disorders. Teens who diet are up to 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder. Dieting is the most important predictor of an eating disorder. 

Eating disorders continue to rise, and they are showing up in younger kids than ever. Learning about diet culture is essential to protecting your children from the dangerous effects of diet culture.

How to teach kids about diet culture

1. Teach them to spot diet culture by looking for its most common red flags:

  • A weight loss goal
  • Food rules like “eat this, not that”
  • Cutting out entire food groups or specific types of food
  • Calorie/macro/fat counts
  • Measuring food
  • Rigid exercise programs with a “no excuses” mentality
  • Simple diet programs that are “easy and effortless”

2. Teach them to eat enough food on a regular schedule, ideally with other people. Most bodies need to be fed every 2-5 hours throughout the day. Skipping meals is a recipe for restriction and binge eating, and it should not become a habit. 

3. Teach them to be critical consumers of health and diet advice. Most people who give health and diet advice are not aware of the dangers of weight cycling and eating disorders. They are typically repeating the same advice we’ve been hearing from women’s magazines for decades. Teach your children to spot diet culture when consuming media on television, social media, at school, doctors offices, sports teams, and within their own family.

4. Take a stand and do not allow kids to diet in the home. Because we live in diet culture and dieting is everywhere, it’s very likely your child will want to try a new diet. Listen carefully and ask a lot of questions. Support your child in healthy behaviors but do not support them in pursuing weight loss, which leads to weight cycling and eating disorders. Be patient, kind, and firm. 

Free Download: Non-Diet Approach To Health For Parents

The basic facts you need to start using a non-diet approach to parenting with this free downloadable PDF.

What to teach kids instead of diet culture

Instead of teaching kids to follow diet culture, teach them to follow a non-diet approach to health. This takes the positive elements of our health and fitness culture but eliminates the weight loss goals, since they are proven to be dangerous. A non-diet approach to health includes: 

  • Get enough sleep every night and following a sleep schedule
  • Eat enough food regularly throughout the day and not skipping meals
  • Share family meals and enjoying food-based rituals that bring people together 
  • Move their body regularly in ways that feel challenging and positive
  • Get outdoors and spending time in nature
  • Socialize and spending time with friends and family 
  • Get mental healthcare to address body image, anxiety, depression, and other conditions that can increase the likelihood and risks of dieting

The non-diet lifestyle provides all the benefits of a healthy lifestyle without the toxic results that come from diet culture. Without a focus on weight loss, a non-diet lifestyle is ultimately healthier for your child’s body and mind. 

The non-diet approach to health, which is based on research on Health at Every Size® (HAES®), centers around taking care of your body through nourishing it with healthy food, engaging in regular physical activity, and prioritizing essential self-care practices like sufficient sleep. Unlike the weight-focused, diet culture approach to health, HAES® does not prioritize weight loss as the main objective of adopting healthy behaviors. This distinction is significant because weight loss diets have been found to have negative consequences such as weight cycling and eating disorders, which can be harmful to individuals. On the other hand, embracing a HAES® approach is associated with positive health outcomes.

What is diet culture?

“Diet culture is a system that demonizes and hates fat,” says Dana Suchow, an award-winning speaker, educator, and coach who recovered from an eating disorder. “It tells us that even though 95% of diets fail, we should still maintain an endless pursuit of weight loss. Diet culture tells us that we’ll only be healthy if we’re thin, even though we know that thin doesn’t equal health.”

The power of diet culture overrides logic and scientific intelligence. Meanwhile, the diet industry generates over $72.6 billion each year. Their tactics revolve around creating a sense of insecurity, as an insecure individual becomes more susceptible to exploitation. These companies invest billions of dollars in advertising to fabricate problems, solely to market their products as solutions.  

The result is extremely high rates of dieting, despite zero evidence that diets create lasting results, and substantial evidence that they cause harm. According to Boston Medical Center, approximately 45 million Americans diet each year.

Free Download: Non-Diet Approach To Health For Parents

The basic facts you need to start using a non-diet approach to parenting with this free downloadable PDF.

History of diet culture

Weight loss diets go back at least to Greek times, but diet culture, in which massive corporations profit from our cultural obsession with weight loss, is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1980 the industry was worth about $10 billion, in 1991 it was worth about $50 billion, and today it’s worth more than $70 billion, with massive ongoing growth projected based on new medical devices and pharmaceuticals. 

Diet culture prioritizes thinness and weight loss above all else, dismissing the importance of healthy behaviors that don’t lead to weight loss. With this approach, dieting does not improve health. The three most common outcomes of dieting are:

  1. Weight regain (95-98%)
  2. Additional weight gain (65%)
  3. Disordered eating and eating disorders

Diet culture diminishes the significance of health by focusing solely on weight loss rather than actual health. Our mental, emotional, and physical health can all improve without changing the number on the scale. 

Furthermore, diet culture perpetuates the demonization and discrimination against fat individuals, marginalizing them within society. Despite the fact that 95% of diets ultimately fail, we continue to pursue weight loss relentlessly due to the belief perpetuated by diet culture that thinness is the same thing as health. Diet culture comes from and feeds weight stigma, also known as anti-fat bias or fatphobia.

Despite the power of diet culture, the science is conclusive: weight loss does not guarantee good health and actually harms health. Diet culture falsely promotes the notion that weight loss in any form is synonymous with improved health.

Effects of diet culture

Diet culture is directly linked to:

  • Binge eating
  • Weight gain
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Bullying
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Suicide

“If we didn’t have diet culture, I know that I wouldn’t have developed my own eating disorder,” says Dana. “That’s why I work to help parents, educators, and caregivers learn about diet culture so that we can reduce its terrible impact on kids, teens, and adults.”

Free Download: Non-Diet Approach To Health For Parents

The basic facts you need to start using a non-diet approach to parenting with this free downloadable PDF.

Diet culture facts

“Diet culture is hurting you and your children,” says Dana. “It’s having a direct impact on how our kids feel about themselves, and it is hurting their ability to live a fully-present life. Instead, they spend their time and energy protecting themselves against the fear of being judged by diet culture.”

It is becoming normal for kids to diet and to worry constantly about their appearance. Children as young as 5 years old worry about their weight and already show signs of anti-fat bias. 

Diet culture teaches kids eating disorder behaviors like restricting and over-exercising. Because diet behaviors are normalized, it can be difficult to spot an eating disorder. Dieting is so common that it’s become difficult for researchers to say how many people actually have eating disorders. The lines between dieting, eating disorders, and disordered eating have become blurred. 

Recent studies have put the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors among women and girls at 65%. Additionally, 53% of 13-year-old girls express dissatisfaction with their bodies, a percentage that rises to 78% by the age of 17. Disturbingly, 42% of girls in first to third grade express a desire to be thinner, while a staggering 81% of ten-year-olds report fear of gaining weight.

Diet culture affects kids

“Over and over again, diet culture tells children, teens, and adults that their exterior appearance is more important than anything else,” says Dana. “We are a society that is so focused on the exterior that we have forgotten our interiors. And the problem is, that when we are focused on our exteriors and not our interiors, we’re not present for our life. When we are thinking about our external and not our internal, we are holding ourselves back.”

Living in a society that is cruel and dominating towards bodies is hard. And it’s difficult to raise a body-confident child in this culture. But it is possible. You can raise a child who is free from body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders if you protect them from the worst impacts of diet culture.

“All bodies deserve to be seen,” says Dana. “All bodies deserve representation. And your kids’ bodies deserve to exist in the world exactly as they are, without dieting, restricting, and over-exercising. Without appetite-suppressing lollipops, laxative teas and juice cleanses. Your kids deserve to live a life free of diet culture.”
There’s hope. We just have to teach kids about diet culture and keep it out of our homes. You have the power to fight diet culture and eating disorders. We have the power to create change. You have the power to help your children.

Dana presented on this topic in a TED-style talk – you can watch it here:

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions.  She’s the founder of, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.

Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.

See Our Parent’s Guide To Diet Culture And Eating Disorders

8 thoughts on “How to teach kids about diet culture

  1. This is a great post!

    1. Thank you so much!

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