Weight loss incentives for kids – a good idea?

Lots of parents have heard of weight loss incentives for kids and wonder whether it’s a good idea. We live in a culture that tells parents that they should avoid weight gain in their kids. And parents are told they need to “watch” their kids’ weight. But since weight loss is hard, parents figure they can sweeten the deal with incentives for their kids. So is this a good idea? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

The short answer is undecidedly no.

Weight loss incentives for kids are undeniably harmful. Any possible benefits are fleeting at best and the costs can be far-reaching. Kids whose parents gave them weight loss incentives report a broad variety of negative results.

What are the most common outcomes of weight loss incentives for kids?

Weight loss may seem like a good idea. But 95% of people who intentionally lose weight gain it back, and 65% of people who lose weight gain back more. That’s regardless of the method of weight loss. Yes, it includes “moderation” and “clean eating” diets. However it’s accomplished, intentional weight loss has undeniably awful results for a supposed health recommendation.

But aside from the fact that diets fail, there are other important side effects of asking kids to lose weight, including:

  • Eating disorders
  • Body shame and insecurity
  • A lifetime of weight cycling, which damages health
  • Negative relationship with food
  • Feeling “less than” and ashamed of themselves
  • Disliking the parents/blaming the parent for body image issues

You may think that these impacts pale in comparison to the health implications of living in a larger body, but they do not. In fact we have been fed numerous lies about body fat and health. The bottom line is that health is not based on weight. There are many things parents can do to pursue health without ever using a scale, food restriction, or body shame.

And we should mention another outcome of intentional weight loss (AKA dieting) in childhood: higher adult body weight. That’s right. Children who diet have higher body weights compared to children who do not diet. This effect is likely based on a combination of the complex biological and psychological factors that establish body weight. If your goal is to raise a child who has low weight, then incentivizing your child to intentionally lose weight is one of the worst things you can do.

Weight loss incentives that damaged kids for life

ATTENTION: Under no circumstances should you think that this list has good ideas that you should follow in your own parenting. This is a list compiled from adults who have struggled with eating disorders and body image issues. And they attribute these health-damaging and life-threatening conditions in part to their parents’ misguided attempts to manage their weight.

  • My parents offered me $10 for every pound I lost. I was 10 years old.
  • I was told that I would get all new clothes if I lost weight.
  • We had a family weight chart and had weekly weigh-ins. The winner each week got to pick the movie for family movie night.
  • Mom took me shopping and let me pick out my favorite outfit. Then she bought it for me – in a smaller size – as incentive to lose weight.
  • My busy mom promised to spend time with me if we went to Weight Watchers meetings together.
  • Dad said that whichever of my siblings and I lost the most weight in 45 days would win $100.
  • I got a scale for my birthday one year, and was promised my “real” gift if I lost weight.

If there is any part of you that thinks the incentives above are healthy, you are mistaken. Putting kids on diets and incentivizing weight loss has far-reaching negative impacts on their health for life.

Kids who diet are 5-18x more likely to develop an eating disorder, the deadliest mental health condition.

And you may be surprised to know that kids who diet also have higher adult weights than those who don’t. That’s right. Putting your child on a diet today increases their weight as an adult.

The myth that weight equals health

It’s true that we live in a culture that says body weight is the key to health. But that’s incorrect. It’s been built on the false premise of the BMI, which has been thoroughly discredited yet is still used as a tool to assess health.

Why? It’s complicated. Weight stigma has a long history in our culture, and it has racist, classist, and sexist roots.

Lower weight has been an indication of purity, intelligence, and self-control for over a century. We equate weight with health, but what we are really doing is equating weight with class. A quick look at body weight statistics will show you that you are statistically more likely to be at a lower weight the more socially privileged you are. In our society, that means being white and wealthy.

And of course we can’t ignore the fact that weight loss is big business. The weight loss industry is currently $72B (2019), and it has been growing steadily at a fast pace for the past 50 years.

Parents understandably believe our societal bias, supported by massive marketing campaigns, that weight equals health. But they are mistaken. Strong relationships with our family and body respect are actually where we can make an impact on our kids’ lifetime health.

How parents damage food & body relationships

Kids look to their parents for validation and security. All children seek approval from their parents and long to be “good enough” for their parents’ love. This heartbreaking fact is why weight loss incentives for kids are so damaging and painful.

A child’s body is the child themself. They cannot separate their body from who they are. Thus, telling a child they need to change their body is the same as telling them they need to change who they are as a person to obtain love, affection, and respect.

Here’s what adults told us about what they learned when their parents incentivized weight loss: When my parents incentivized me to lose weight, I learned …

  • that something was wrong with me. I was imperfect. Disgusting
  • to associate being hungry with being loved
  • I wasn’t good enough. I was repulsive and embarrassing to them
  • acceptance was conditional, and that my parents would love me more if I was thin
  • that I was different, less “good” than kids who were thin

We heard from so many adults who wish their parents hadn’t put them on a diet or incentivized them to lose weight. Here are some especially poignant comments:

  • Today it’s hard to enjoy food without a guilty conscience.
  • I am in eating disorder recovery, and I can’t even talk to my parents right now.
  • My life revolves around my weight, and I live in constant fear that if I gain weight I will be worthless and alone forever.

What parents should actually do to improve kids’ health

Parents often think that raising healthy kids means raising thin kids. But health is far more complex and multi-faceted than a number on a scale. When parents focus on the scale, they often fail to nurture their kids in the critical health behaviors that positively improve health.

Here’s what parents can do to raise healthy kids:

  • Connect with each child emotionally, and maintain that connection no matter what. Building emotional safety in the parent-child relationship is possibly the single most important modifiable health behavior.
  • Ensure kids get plenty of rest and enough sleep every night. Lack of sleep is more directly associated with the health risks commonly ascribed to weight.
  • Do physical activities as a family and individually with each child in a way that is fun and fulfilling. Play together and hike together. Get outside together or do some stretching in the living room floor. Don’t base movement on outdated and harmful messages of pain and weight loss.
  • Eat together as often as possible, providing a broad range of food choices but never forcing foods or labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Don’t restrict your own food in an effort to lose or control your weight.

You can also model healthy behaviors like:

  • Meaningful connections with friends and family
  • Taking care of your emotional needs
  • Not smoking, drinking, or otherwise depending on addictive substances
  • Moving your body in ways that feel good to you
  • Eating a diet filled with all food groups and foods that you enjoy and make you feel good

We have been told that weight determines health, but in fact it is the behaviors above, not a number on the scale, that determines our health. If we want to raise healthy kids, this is our roadmap. Weight’s got nothing to do with it.


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 handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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