Parents: get off the diet cycle and raise healthier kids

An interview with Judith Matz, LCSW

Parents really, really want to raise healthy kids. Unfortunately, we’re told that the biggest obstacle facing our kids’ health is their body weight. But this approach is harming, not helping our kids grow up healthy.

Parents who are worried about their kids’ weight are more likely to have kids who diet, and the No. 1 outcome of dieting is weight cycling, which can lead to higher lifetime weight, greater risk of eating disorders, and/or lower self-esteem.

We spoke with Judith Matz, LCSW, co-author of Diet Survivor’s Handbook and the brand new Body Positivity Card Deck, and author the children’s book Amanda’s Big Dream – a story that helps kids follow their dreams at any size. She provided us with great ideas about how parents can get off the diet cycle and raise healthier kids.

Q: How can parents help kids develop a healthy body image?

We have to keep in mind that the backdrop is diet culture, and we’ve all been immersed in diet culture. One of the most helpful things parents can do is look at their own attitudes toward dieting, food and weight.

There are a lot of messages that promote weight stigma. This is the belief that thinness is what’s valued, and that you can’t be happy, healthy and successful unless you’re a certain body size. Weight stigma presumes everyone can be thinner if they do the right things and leads to shaming people who are at a higher weight.

Parents typically have the best of intentions. They want to protect their kids from weight stigma. But they don’t realize that they are transmitting negative body image and body shame to their children. This shame becomes internalized, leading to lifelong struggles with food and weight.

It’s important to teach kids that bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes.

The greatest difficulty facing many of my clients is healing the pain that they weren’t “good enough” because of their body size. These feelings often began in childhood with comments from parents (and other important people in their lives) about weight. Parents who see diet culture for what it is (harmful) can help their kids develop a more positive body image. They can teach kids to take care of their bodies at any size. They can let their children know that they are loved for who they are, not what they weigh.

Q: What should parents know about kids’ health and weight?

What’s helpful for parents to understand first is that weight is a characteristic, not a behavior. Genetics plays a big role in a child’s weight, just like it does in their height. On the other hand, parents can model positive behaviors in their own relationship with food and physical activity.

Socializing with friends, a good night’s sleep and honoring hunger and fullness cues are examples of behaviors that are terrific for kids of all sizes. If you have a child who is active and eats a wide variety of food (given what’s accessible to your family), there’s a good chance they’re at the weight they are supposed to be.

At the same time, if you have a child who is binge eating or hiding food, that should be of concern regardless of their weight. If you have a child who is always sedentary, that may be a concern no matter what the size of your child. It’s also important to keep in mind that’s what healthy for thinner kids is healthy for higher weight kids and vice a versa. Sometimes parents give thinner kids a pass when it comes to unhealthy behaviors that would concern them in larger kids. Using weight to determine health has the potential to hurt kids of all sizes.

Q: Should parents restrict their kids’ food?

For most people who restrict, the response is then to eventually overeat the very food they’ve been avoiding. If a food is considered “bad”, a person is likely to eat more than their body needs when they break through the restriction. It’s a natural response to deprivation. While diets almost always work in the short run, the vast majority will gain back the weight, and one to two thirds end up higher than their pre-diet weight. 

Instead, for both parents and kids, it’s more helpful to honor hunger and fullness than to weigh, measure, and restrict food. We want to raise kids who can recognize that when they eat something that satisfies them—as they’re offered a wide variety of foods—they feel good.

Attuned/Intuitive Eating

This way of eating is known as attuned or intuitive eating. Rather than following external rules and plans, both parents and kids learn trust their bodies to guide them about when what and how much to eat. In March 2020 yet another study came out showing that intuitive eating in the teenage years is linked to a lifelong relationship with food that is nourishing, satisfying and peaceful.

Many parents live with internalized weight stigma and may be dieting to lose weight or even avoiding certain food groups in the name of wellness. In this way it’s easy for parent who wouldn’t intentionally restrict their kid’s food to still model what’s valued when it comes to eating and body size. If a parent says they can’t eat that cookie because “sugar is addictive” or “it’s too fattening,” then they are teaching kids that cookies are bad, and that they should worry about their weight.

When a parent says this meal tastes delicious and feels good in my body, that is a completely different message.

It’s important to know that there’s room for all types of foods in our diets. In fact, it’s more important to raise kids who have a healthy relationship with food as opposed to only eating healthy food. I encourage parents who have dieted to think carefully about their relationship with food. They should watch for ways in which their own restriction slips into making their children feel restricted.

Q: What should parents do to raise healthy kids?

A great place for parents to start is to work on their own relationship with food and their own body acceptance. Some people who can’t do this for themselves find they are able to do it through the lens of the values they want to pass to their kids.

For example, what are your family values? How about valuing staying connected with and honoring the body? How about valuing diversity and knowing that all people are equally valuable in all different sizes, shapes, abilities, and colors?

If these are your family values, then it’s easier to see that there’s room for all types of food. It’s easier to trust that your child’s body is growing as it’s meant to. These values help kids stay in tune with their bodies and are protective against shame, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

Q: How can I protect my child from fat shaming?

No matter what parents do at home, it’s tough out there. Kids are still going to get fat-shaming, thin-valuing messages from peers, teachers, commercials, cartoons, and our entire culture. In this environment, parents should know that it’s not unusual for a child to come home and say, “Am I too fat?.”

Don’t jump to reassurance. Regardless of your child’s body right now, you don’t want to suggest that a body is OK only as long as it is “not fat.” Ask them: what did they hear, and where is it coming from?

Find out how they feel about being fat – what does it mean to them?

Gently teach them that just like we don’t choose how tall or short we are, or what color eyes we have, we don’t choose the size of our bodies. Their job is to take good care of their body, and it will settle where it’s meant to be.

A parent can’t protect their child from fat-shaming. But parents who teach children these messages early on raise kids who are more resilient. They are less likely to fall prey to diet culture, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

Q: Shouldn’t I worry about “bad” food?

No matter what happens at home, kids are going to be exposed to all kinds of food in the world. Rather than restrict food or label it as “good” and “bad,” it’s better to teach them how to eat it in a way that serves and nurtures their body.

Food is a basic human need. It feeds us physically and emotionally, and we should never forget that. It’s better not to teach kids that they can’t eat certain foods. This approach tends to set them up for overeating or binging on that food.

We all know the kids who aren’t allowed to eat candy. You recognize restricted kids because they eat a lot of candy when it’s available since they get it so rarely. This overeating then reinforces the idea that candy is a problem. But the reason they consume so much candy at one time is that they know it’s going to be taken away again. If, instead, they know they it’s going to be available again, there’s no incentive to eat it when their body doesn’t want it.

Q: But there are “bad” foods, right?

Not really. We find that when people eat intuitively and are attuned to their hunger and fullness cues, free from diet culture, they tend to eat a well-balanced diet for their bodies. Certainly some foods are more nutritious than other, but I’ve never met anyone who only want sweets when they listen to their body, just like I’ve never met anyone who only wants fruits and vegetables. The attuned body guides us to make the choices that honor our bodies needs, while diet culture prescribes rules that are destined to fail.

When you look at young kids, they’re concrete thinkers. When they hear healthy/unhealthy, good/bad, they become super-focused on eating the right way, and this is where we see eating disorders begin. Let’s help support kids in learning how to eat all types of food. This gives them the skills to eat without shame, hiding, or eating to the point of physical discomfort.

This is where we come back to the message that parents can work on this first with themselves. If your experience is that when you eat cookies you can’t stop, then it’s not easy to trust that your child will be able to stop. On the other hand, if you’re an attuned or intuitive eater, you know that when you want something sweet you can trust your body to guide you.

Binge eating is less likely to occur for a person who trusts their body and food supply. Learning that this is true for yourself can help you trust your kid’s body.

Q: But what if I’m still committed to dieting?

You can still work on passing down positive messages around eating and body size even as you’re struggling with your own. You don’t have to be perfect first.

But if you’re caught in the yoyo diet cycle, make a commitment not to talk about dieting, label foods as good or bad, or talk about your weight or other people’s weight in front of your kids.

When talking to your child, focus on what the body can do, not what it looks like or weighs. Focus on how food feels, not its nutritional content.

For example:

  • “It feels so good to be in a swimming pool on a hot day.”
  • “Walking to school really wakes us up so we’re ready to learn.”
  • “This food is satisfying.”
  • “I love that this food crunches!”

Offer your child all types of foods. Given what’s accessible to your family, serve them fruits, vegetables, protein, carbs and fat. 

Remember that all cultures in the world have dessert. It’s natural to want something sweet after a meal. Once you allow sweets regularly, it’s less likely to be a big deal. This is because your children learn that they can have it often, so there’s no incentive to overeat or hide these foods.

Q: What can I do to be a better parent in this area?

First, keep exposing yourself to social media, books, and podcasts that are non-diet, body-positive, and working to end weight stigma. Do everything you can to end body shaming.

Parents are surrounded by fear around weight and health. But most of the fear is based on myths. The healthiest thing for kids is to be feeling good in their bodies and connecting with other people. Those are things that are worth supporting in kids.

Look for a doctor and other healthcare providers who don’t focus on your child’s weight or discuss it in front of them. It’s fine to focus on a varied diet, being physically active, and social activity. All of those things contribute to good health regardless of body size. Focusing on weight can really interfere with positive behaviors.

People talk about young kids getting diabetes, but really what we’re seeing the big increase in is eating disorders. I think that’s what we really need to be focusing on.


Judith Matz is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with over 25 years of experience as a therapist, speaker and author. She received her Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan and completed a post-graduate fellowship and Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago with a focus on eating disorders. Judith specializes in Binge Eating Disorder and other overeating struggles. She uses the Health At Every Size® framework to promote wellness beyond weight and address social justice issues that affect people of all sizes. Judith is the author of three books related to eating and weight issues: The Diet Survivors HandbookBeyond a Shadow of a Diet, and Amanda’s Big Dream. Her website is https://judithmatz.com

Discount code! Enter POSITIVITY20 to get a 20% discount and free shipping through the end of 2020.