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

non-diet weight-neutral parenting

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 control, a healthy lifestyle, or something else.

But it turns out that dieting and weight control are not nearly as good as we’ve been told they are. In fact, they can be very harmful. 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.

Read on for the five most important articles you need to read about intentional weight loss. 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.

Non-Diet HAES Parenting Tips

Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts

  • Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
  • Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
  • Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
  • What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food

1. “Obesity” isn’t an epidemic, it’s not deadly, it 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.

2. 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.

3. 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

4. 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.
Non-Diet HAES Parenting Tips

Non-Diet/Health At Every Size® Fact Sheets, Guidelines, and Scripts

  • Fact Sheets About Weight Stigma, Diet Culture, Kids and Diets, and More
  • Non-Diet Parent Guidelines
  • Non-Diet Parent Scripts About Responding to Fat Talk, Diet Talk, and More
  • What to Say/Not Say When Talking About Bodies and Food

5. Parents don’t need to worry about the health risks of “obesity”

The Health Risks of Obesity Have Been Exaggerated, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, January 2019, 51(1), Pages 218-221

Article not currently available – read an interview with the author here.

Highlights from the author

  • The health risks of obesity, as well as the purported health benefits of weight loss, have been greatly exaggerated.
  • Yo-yo dieting, which is pretty much the norm in America, is associated with the exact same risks as obesity itself.
  • Obesity-related health markers improve little, if at all, with weight loss, but cardiovascular fitness virtually eliminates many of the health risks associated with obesity. Fitness can be improved relatively quickly in people of all shapes and sizes, and the health benefits of improved fitness outweigh the health benefits of weight loss.
  • Our weight, body fat and lean tissue mass are the result of a complex interaction of genes, behavior and environment. We actually have very little control over them.

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.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.

Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with 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.

Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.

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

8 thoughts on “The science to support non-diet, weight-neutral parenting

  1. […] body. But we must separate the concept of thin from healthy. There is a broad range of health, and weight does not indicate a person’s health any more than the color of their eyes or the size of their […]

  2. […] Read More: Stop Supporting Intentional Weight Loss! Here’s the Science to Support a Non-Diet, Weight-Neut… […]

  3. […] Anyone in the “overweight” and above categories is lectured about their weight. This is regardless of why they came for a visit. It is also based only on weight, not health behaviors. Many receive lectures about weight reduction, despite the fact that there is no proven, safe, and effective method for reducing weight. […]

  4. […] Intentional weight loss results in weight regain, often plus more, for 95% of people. It is ethically wrong to ever prescribe intentional weight loss for any body. Luckily, there are lots of ethical ways to pursue health without focusing on weight. […]

  5. […] such massive failure rates and side effects that it should be permanently removed from practice. Intentional weight loss results in regain, often plus more, in 90-95% of cases. And it causes permanent changes to the […]

  6. […] 4. Teach her to accept her body (and never diet). Trying to change our body size and shape doesn’t work, and it leads to eating disorders, so our main goal as parents of children living in larger bodies is to help them never, ever diet, which means we need to help them accept their weight, whatever it is. Read More: Stop supporting intentional weight loss! Here’s the science to support a non-diet, weight-neutral … […]

  7. […] Pouring energy into something that’s not effective 95% of the time is not a good idea.  Intentional weight loss is a […]

  8. […] fact is that 95% of diets fail. And dieting itself is unhealthy and sets us up for weight gain. Are you a lifetime dieter? […]

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