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What is the science behind a non-diet approach to parenting?

non-diet weight-neutral parenting

A non-diet approach to parenting will help your child feel better and be healthier. Non-diet parenting is all about health and wellbeing, it just upends the belief that these things are based on weight loss. Non-diet parenting means parenting without a focus on dieting for weight loss. Beyond that, non-diet parenting is about liberating our kids’ bodies from the harms caused by diet culture.

So much of what we think we know about food, diet, and weight is just plain wrong. It’s not our fault. After all, journalists, healthcare providers, educators, bloggers, and influencers all promote dieting. Of course, they may call it weight management, a healthy lifestyle, or something else.

But it turns out that intentional weight loss, commonly called dieting, is not nearly as healthy as we’ve been told it is. In fact, it can be very harmful, particularly for kids. And when it comes to parenting, we want to be weight-neutral and take a non-diet approach. 

There’s a lot of pressure on parents to watch their kids’ weight. Some parents believe they must help kids be “healthy” with intentional weight loss. However, there is actually no evidence that intentional weight loss is healthy. Furthermore, there is substantial evidence that intentional weight loss is unhealthy. In fact, it leads to higher weights and increased rates of eating disorders.

Not sure about this? Keep reading for the data below, and/or check out my scientific library for extensive support for a non-diet approach to health.

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.

Principles of the non-diet approach to parenting

A non-diet approach to parenting makes sure you understand the harms caused by diet culture and helps you counteract them and raise kids who are happy, healthy, and free from disordered eating and negative body image.

We live in a body-negative culture that tells us our bodies are not acceptable unless they are thin. But this is cruel, unscientific, and unhelpful. Our body-negative culture damages our kids’ health. There are no known positive outcomes. On the other hand, believing that our bodies are inherently worthy of dignity and respect has very positive health outcomes. Here are the core principles of a non-diet approach to parenting: 

  1. Body diversity is natural: Not everyone is thin, just like not everyone is tall. We’re all born with a blueprint, and we’re not all supposed to be the same.
  2. Weight loss diets are harmful: There is no scientific data supporting the long-term benefits of dieting to lose weight. However, there is evidence that weight loss diets increase cortisol and decrease metabolic rate, likely forever. Additionally, 95% of diets result in weight regain, and 65% result in additional weight gain. In fact, the most common result of dieting is weight gain after 2 years. 
  3. Bodies are wise: Without restriction our bodies intuitively seek a natural weight, food intake, and exercise pattern that keeps us in balance.
  4. All bodies are good bodies: Judging bodies as good and bad reflects the worst of our culture (sexism, racism, classism, ableism, etc.), but all bodies are equally worthy of dignity and respect. Nobody’s body is more worthy than another person’s body.

Not sure about this? Keep reading for the data below, and/or check out my scientific library for extensive support for a non-diet approach to health.

What is the science behind a non-diet approach to parenting?

Benefits of non-diet parent approach

I know we’ve all been told that keeping our kids at a low weight is the key to health and wellbeing. However, a non-diet approach in which we approach health without focusing on the number on the scale is scientifically proven to improve the following health outcomes:

  • Physiological measures (e.g., blood pressure, blood lipids, cortisol)
  • Health behaviors (e.g., eating and activity habits, dietary quality)
  • Psychosocial outcomes (e.g., social connections, self-worth, body image)

Meanwhile, there are no known benefits and numerous harms associated with intentional weight loss or dieting. It’s surprising, but a weight-based approach to health is scientifically proven to decrease all the things that get better with non-diet parenting. 

Dieting increases blood pressure and cortisol. It has negative impacts on eating and activity habits and dietary quality. Surprisingly, dieting is strongly associated with weight gain. Finally, dieting negatively affects body image, self-worth, social connections, and significantly increases the rates of disordered eating and eating disorders. Dieting is not healthy!

Not sure about this? Keep reading for the data below, and/or check out my scientific library for extensive support for a non-diet approach to health.

Is a non-diet approach healthy?

Perhaps you’re wondering … but if I don’t teach my child to control their weight doesn’t that mean they won’t be healthy?

No.

Quite the opposite.

Science has shown us that people who feel good about their bodies regardless of weight are healthier because they pursue more health behaviors like exercising, eating well, and getting enough rest. They have a lower risk of disease because they don’t live in constant shame and contempt for themselves. They have healthier relationships with themselves and others. They are less likely to develop eating disorders, which affect 10% of the population and are the second-most deadly mental illness.

Diet culture is unhealthy. A non-diet approach to health is healthy.

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.

The science to support non-diet, weight-neutral parenting

Read on for the most important scientific articles supporting non-diet, weight-neutral parenting. Let’s look at dieting, fat, “obesity” and weight epidemics that aren’t actually epidemic at all. It takes a lot of guts to go against the current cultural norms. But rest assured that science firmly supports a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to parenting.

The non-diet approach to health is grounded in research on Health at Every Size® (HAES®). This approach emphasizes the importance of nourishing your body with healthy food, engaging in regular physical activity, and prioritizing sufficient sleep and other essential self-care practices. Unlike the weight-focused, diet culture approach to health, HAES® does not place an emphasis on weight loss as the ultimate goal of adopting healthy behaviors. This distinction is crucial because weight loss diets are linked to negative outcomes such as weight cycling and eating disorders, which can be harmful to individuals. On the other hand, adopting a HAES® approach is associated with positive health outcomes.

1. Non-diet approach has better health outcomes than intentional weight loss

Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift, Nutrition Journal, 10:9, 2011.

Highlights from the Article:

  • Randomized controlled clinical trials indicate that a non-diet Health at Every SizeⓇ (HAESⓇ) approach is associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in:
    • Physiological measures (e.g., blood pressure, blood lipids)
    • Health behaviors (e.g., eating and activity habits, dietary quality)
    • Psychosocial outcomes (such as self-esteem and body image),
  • HAES achieves these health outcomes more successfully than weight loss treatment and without the contraindications associated with a weight focus.
  • While intentional weight loss efforts induce short term weight loss, the majority of individuals are unable to maintain weight loss over the long term and do not achieve the putative benefits of improved morbidity and mortality.
  • Weight focus is ineffective at producing thinner, healthier bodies, and may also have unintended consequences, including:
    • Food and body preoccupation
    • Repeated cycles of weight loss and regain
    • Distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants
    • Reduced self-esteem
    • Eating disorders

2. Dieting leads to eating disorders and weight gain

Obesity, disordered eating, and eating disorders in a longitudinal study of adolescents: how do dieters fare 5 years later? Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2006, Pages 559-68.

Highlights from the Article:

  • Dieting and unhealthful weight-control behaviors predict outcomes related to obesity and eating disorders 5 years later.
  • A shift away from dieting and drastic weight-control measures toward the long-term implementation of healthful eating and physical activity behaviors is needed to prevent obesity and eating disorders in adolescents.
  • Adolescents using weight-control behaviors increased their body mass index compared to adolescents not using any weight-control behaviors and were at approximately three times greater risk for being overweight.
  • Adolescents using weight-control behaviors were at increased risk for binge eating with loss of control and for extreme weight-control behaviors such as self-induced vomiting and use of diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics 5 years later, compared with adolescents not using any weight-control behaviors.

3. No evidence that diets lead to health benefits

Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer, American Psychologist, Vol 62(3), Apr 2007, Pages 220-233.

Highlights from the Article:

  • There is little support for the notion that diets lead to lasting weight loss or health benefits. 
  • The authors review studies of the long-term outcomes of calorie-restricting diets to assess whether dieting is an effective treatment for obesity.
  • These studies show that one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets, and these studies likely underestimate the extent to which dieting is counterproductive because of several methodological problems, all of which bias the studies toward showing successful weight loss maintenance.
  • In addition, the studies do not provide consistent evidence that dieting results in significant health improvements, regardless of weight change.

4. “Obesity” isn’t doesn’t cause disease, and weight loss doesn’t work

The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic? International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 35, Issue 1, 1 February 2006, Pages 55–60

Highlights from the Article:

  • Public health agencies across the world are searching for policies or incentives to mitigate the alleged ‘disease’ of obesity.
  • In our view, the available scientific data neither support alarmist claims about obesity nor justify diverting scarce resources away from far more pressing public health issues. 
  • Given the limited scientific evidence, the authors suggest that the current rhetoric about an obesity-driven health crisis is being driven more by cultural and political factors than by any threat increasing body weight may pose to public health.

The authors debunk four false claims:

False claim #1: obesity is an epidemic.

An ‘epidemic’ of overweight and obesity implies an exponential pattern of growth typical of epidemics. The available data do not support this claim. Instead, what we have seen, in the US, is a relatively modest rightward skewing of average weight on the distribution curve, with people of lower weights gaining little or no weight, and the majority of people weighing ∼3–5 kg more than they did a generation ago.

False claim #2: overweight and obesity are major contributors to mortality.

This claim, central to arguments that higher than average body mass amount to a major public health problem, is at best weakly supported by the epidemiological literature. Except at true statistical extremes, high body mass is a very weak predictor of mortality, and may even be protective in older populations. 

False claim #3: higher weight is pathological and a primary direct cause of disease.

With the exception of osteoarthritis, where increased body mass contributes to wear on joints, and a few cancers where estrogen originating in adipose tissue may contribute, causal links between body fat and disease remain hypothetical. It is quite possible, and even likely, that higher than average body fat is merely an expression of underlying metabolic processes that themselves may be the sources of the pathologies in question. 

False claim #4: significant long-term weight loss is both medically beneficial and a practical goal.

This claim is almost completely unsupported by the epidemiological literature. The central premise of the current war on fat—that turning obese and overweight people into so-called ‘normal weight’ individuals will improve their health—remains an untested hypothesis.

The science firmly supports a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to parenting

There are many noisy voices out there telling parents they need to worry about kids’ weight. But the evidence shows that most of our fears abut weight are because of weight stigma. And diet culture and eating disorders are strongly correlated with each other. Fear of fat is not scientific, it’s simply a bias we’ve developed in our culture. The evidence shows that parenting from a non-diet and weight-neutral perspective is safe and healthy.

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.


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 More-Love.org, 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

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