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Health myths you should ignore to prevent eating disorders

Myths you should ignore to prevent eating disorders

So many of our cultural health norms are not actually healthy, which is why I’ve put together a list of the four health myths you should ignore to prevent eating disorders.

Look, it’s not our fault that we’re confused about health. We’re surrounded by powerful industries that create and reinforce health myths. We have the diet industry, the food industry, and the fitness, beauty, and fashion industries. They are all motivated and skilled at making us believe they have the answer to being healthy. But while health does require the basics: food, housing, and food, consumer goods are not the path to health. Health is an inside job.

Raising healthy kids

Jon and Theresa always wanted the very best for their two kids. Theresa is a nurse and Jon runs marathons. Together, they thought they knew what to do to raise healthy kids. But now that their kids are tweens, they see signs of disordered eating.

“My first hint that something was wrong was when whole containers of peanut butter and loaves of bread would disappear,” says Theresa. “We don’t keep candy, cookies, or chips in the house, but when we went to parties I would see my kids hovering over the food table, grabbing every bit of junk food they could get their hands on. It was shocking to see them put away so much food so quickly. I tell them they will get stomachaches, but they don’t stop. It seems like they have a limitless capacity for junk food.”

Jon agreed. “At first I thought that meant we needed even stricter rules, but now I’m not so sure. It seems like maybe we’ve raised them in such a carefully-managed environment that they just go crazy when they’re out in the real world. I just don’t know how we can keep them healthy anymore – my rules don’t seem to be working very well.”

The relationship is what matters

Often parents worry so much about feeding kids a “junk-free” diet. But in doing so they don’t realize that their kids’ relationship with food and their body is what’s most important. And without a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, kids are susceptible to disordered eating and eating disorders.

Theresa and Jon are worried that their older daughter is developing binge eating disorder. “She’s eating a lot more than usual at night and then skipping breakfast and lunch almost every day,” says Jon. “Sometimes we catch her in the pantry at night, and she seems so desperate and unhappy. Last night she was sobbing in my arms about how much weight she is gaining. I told her she’s beautiful, but it didn’t help.”

“I realize that we have created a lot of food rules and restrictions in our house, and even though our goal was health, it’s not working out so well,” says Theresa. “We both grew up with SpaghettiOs, Pop-Tarts, Top Ramen, and frozen pizzas and burritos, and maybe being so strict with food as parents was an overcorrection.”

Theresa and Jon are not alone. We want to do everything we can to raise healthy kids, but sometimes common health advice gets in the way of them having a positive relationship with food and their body. Even though health myths are everywhere, parents can safely ignore most of them, especially if they want to prevent eating disorders. Health doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s not easy parenting in the midst of all these health myths. But we can do it!

Here are the four parenting myths you can ignore to prevent eating disorders:

Myth 1: my kids will never stop eating sugar and junk

There is a powerful myth in our culture that kids, and all people, are insatiably drawn to sugar and “junk” food. And while there is plenty of evidence that food companies strategically create food that appeals to our genetic predisposition to eating lots of life-giving calories, this doesn’t tell the full story.

Yes, our bodies are very attracted to sweet, salty, and fat-filled food. But bodies are not naturally insatiable unless they are experiencing restriction (famine). In fact, it’s becoming increasingly understood that eating an entire sleeve of Oreos is more likely based on the fact that you have negative beliefs about the Oreos and have told yourself not to eat them than the Oreos themselves. You read that right: restriction, not access to delicious food, breeds binge eating.

There are many people who raise kids using Intuitive Eating and/or Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence method. With these eating styles, people feed themselves healthfully but don’t avoid foods(except for allergies), eat according to appetite, and don’t use weight as a measurement of success. These styles of eating have been associated with the highest levels of health across multiple domains, from cardiovascular to mental health. They are also protective against eating disorders.

Parents should serve kids regular meals featuring a variety of food. Meals should include starches, fats, vegetables/fruits, protein, and dairy (if there’s no lactose intolerance). To avoid binge eating or an unhealthy relationship with food, serve desserts and other tasty, highly palatable foods as part of your regular rotation. 

I know it’s hard to believe, but when you serve all the foods, you’ll raise kids who naturally modulate their food intake and don’t suffer from a scarcity mentality that drives binge eating and/or dieting and restriction. The best thing you can do for your child’s physical and mental health is to raise them to have a healthy relationship with food.

Myth 2: I need to lose weight to be healthy

We live in a culture that is cruel to bodies, so it’s not unusual for parents to be actively working to lose weight with diet and fitness programs. Or on the other hand, parents may feel so discouraged that they don’t feed their bodies well, move them enough, or otherwise treat them with kindness and respect. 

Disliking and tearing apart our bodies and trying to achieve health with weight loss is a cultural obsession that is linked to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Surprisingly, intentional weight loss is not associated with increased health and is associated with higher lifetime BMI

There are many myths linking weight loss to health, when in fact it is the most common precursor to weight gain and eating disorders.

Ask yourself: 

  • Am I actively trying to lose weight?
  • Would other people judge my exercise program as intense or extreme?
  • Do I think I need to lose weight?
  • Am I struggling with binge eating?
  • Would other people say that my eating is “pure,” “clean,” or otherwise admirable based on social media standards?
  • Am I avoiding events and celebrations because I feel ashamed of my body?
  • Before attending events and celebrations, do I try to lose weight so I look better?
  • Do I have bad body thoughts almost all day, every day?

One of the most important things we can do to prevent eating disorders is to heal our own relationship with food and our body. Our children listen when we groan and complain about our bellies, thighs, and other body parts. Our children are watching when we limit our dinner to a salad with no dressing. They know when our exercise is more compulsive than pleasurable.

It’s best if we can adopt a non-diet approach to health. This is not “letting ourselves go,” it is respecting our bodies. This includes eating healthfully (see what that means above), and movement, which is great for almost all bodies. But dieting to lose weight or adopting extreme fitness programs can have serious consequences for our own bodies and our kids.

Myth 3: I need to manage my kid’s weight

The essential health behaviors we need to manage for our kids are:

  • Meals and snacks: serve a variety of foods regularly, reliably, and in a pleasant environment
  • Movement: provide access to free play, P.E., individual/team sports, and/or family physical activities like hiking or dancing together in the living room
  • Sleep: depending on their age, our kids need 8-12 hours of sleep. Sleep is essential for both mental and physical health and should be carefully managed.

But should parents “manage” kids’ weight? Should we monitor it and restrict their food and/or increase exercise if their weight increases or has always been higher than we’d like it to be?

The simple answer is clear: no. The idea that parents need to control kids’ weight is one of the most harmful myths contributing to eating disorders.

And I’m not coddling kids by saying this. The most common outcome of parents who restrict kids’ food with the goal of weight loss is actually higher lifetime weight. That’s right: attempts to control weight actually increase weight. Dieting and weight control in childhood and adolescence predict higher BMI in adulthood. This is because of a syndrome called weight-cycling.

Basically, when you intentionally lose weight, your body kicks in a bunch of biological systems to deal with the perceived famine. Your body has many non-conscious methods such as slowing your metabolism and extracting every single calorie from your diet to try and maintain homeostasis. It will do everything it can to get you back to the weight you were before, often with a little extra to keep you safe.

Restrictive diets and intentional weight loss are both strong predictors of an eating disorder.

It makes sense in our society that parents worry about kids’ weight. Nonetheless, parents should not try to manage or reduce kids’ weight. Focus on healthful feeding, enjoyable movement, and sleep, and trust your child’s body to settle into the weight it’s meant to be.

Myth 4: health is something I can see

Multi-billion dollar industries are dedicated to convincing us that health is visible. After all, if we believe that health is something we can see, we are more likely to buy the products that promise to make us look healthier. Gorgeous models are hired and Photoshopped to sell us the idea that beauty and thinness equal health. But it’s simply not true.

The myths saying we can see health by observing someone’s weight contribute to eating disorders. Health is an inside job. Heavier people are just as likely to be healthy as thinner people. People who are not gorgeous can be just as healthy as gorgeous people. So what can parents actually do to improve kids’ health? Raise your kids in a healthy environment by following these guidelines: 

  1. Don’t diet and don’t let kids diet (dieting is associated with weight gain and eating disorders)
  2. Feed kids healthfully (using Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence model)
  3. Get kids moving for fun and function (with friends and with you)
  4. Protect kids’ sleep (meet the minimum age-based requirements)
  5. Build healthy emotional connections with your children (enjoy them and make family time meaningful and fun)
  6. Help kids learn to self-regulate their emotions (begin by co-regulating with them to build this skill)

These are the basic foundations of health. If you achieve these six things, your child has the structure and support they need to be healthy. And if problems arise, as they probably will, you’ll have the tools to help your child feel better soon.

Moving forward

Theresa and Jon are getting parent coaching to help them build a food- and body-friendly household for their kids. They’re working on being a lot more flexible with how they define health and developing new communication and emotional skills. They can see that certain health myths were increasing their kids’ risk of eating disorders.

Their daughter has responded well to their changes. She is eating more regular meals and experiencing fewer binge-eating episodes. There is less stress around food and she can comfortably eat a few cookies without feeling the urge to binge eat all of them and then restrict afterward to try and make up for it.

Last week they went to an annual family event that is known for its delicious and formerly forbidden foods. This year, Jon and Theresa noticed that their kids ate and enjoyed the food, but they also spent far more time with their cousins. They were not chained to the food table, but rather socialized and enjoyed themselves.

Both kids are more relaxed around food. It took a little bit of time, but now they are showing all the signs of being competent eaters. Eating is a lot more fun and less stressful for everyone. And Jon and Theresa feel more confident and secure that they are raising their kids in a truly healthy environment.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.

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Things parents can do to prevent eating disorders

Parents can prevent eating disorders

By Amelia Sherry, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES

Parents can prevent eating disorders, but it’s something most of us need to learn. Thanks to culture and upbringing, we all come to the table with a certain set of biases. Our beliefs about food and eating are often subconscious.

For example, most people believe that a slim body is a healthy one. And most believe that people who pay close attention to what they eat are healthier than those who are more carefree when it comes to food. 

As a pediatric dietitian and certified diabetes counselor and educator, I’ve found that these biases rarely have the intended effect. And they rarely help our kids develop a taste for swiss chard. Instead, these beliefs are one of the biggest barriers my clients and I face. They get in the way when our shared goal is helping their child have a happy, healthy relationship with food. 

The reason? These beliefs come from a good place. But when we transmit these biases onto our kids we inadvertently put a lot of pressure on their eating. This makes them more prone to disorder and dysfunction. 

The good news is that parents can be more intentional about the language we use and the comments we make. We can reduce unnecessary pressure about food, eating, health and weight. And this will help kids develop a relationship with food that will have a better impact on their overall well-being.  

How to prevent eating disorders

Here are a few tips for rethinking our “food speak” to prevent eating disorders and disordered eating. These approaches will support your child to feel good about what and how much they eat. Parents who become more aware of the attitudes they pass to their kids about food tend to raise kids who are well-nourished in more ways than one. 

Go With an All Foods Fit Approach

By keeping virtue out of the kitchen

Avoid words like “bad,” “junk,” and “unhealthy” when it comes to talking about foods and drinks. Labeling certain foods as evil can trigger feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, and shame in kids. This is especially true if you’re referring to something that child really likes or wants to eat.

The truth is ALL foods can provide some nourishment. And while we may choose to offer our kids certain foods over others, identifying the ones you want them to avoid as “bad” does more harm than good.

Another reason to avoid name-calling when it comes to food: When we do this, we inadvertently teach our kids to judge not only themselves but others who eat them as  “wrong,” “bad,” or deserving of shame, too. Imagine a friend or classmate eats a lunch or snack food that your child feels you’d disapprove of. They may pass that unfair judgment on them, too.

Help Figure Out the Right Portion Size

By nixing “one more bite” and “that’s enough” comments and requests

When our child tells us they’re finished or that they’re still hungry, as a parent we need to believe them! This helps your child develop body trust. It also allows them the freedom to stay in tune with their innate physical ability to self-regulate. 

We are all born with an innate ability to regulate our food intake. We can read our body signals such as hunger, appetite, and satiety. This ability is something our children might lose touch with as they grow if caregivers or culture interfere with it. 

It’s unfortunately common for healthcare professionals, teachers, celebrities, friends, and extended family to make unhelpful comments about food and eating. The main thing is that we want to limit comments about “good” or “bad” eating and focus instead on internal cues. This is protective against disordered eating and one way we can prevent eating disorders.

Trust kids’ bodies

It’s ultimately unhelpful to prompt our kids to eat more when they feel full or stop before they feel satisfied. Because it teaches them to distrust their own body and listen to outside cues instead of their body. 

In the short term, it can be a ding to self-esteem. Kids might learn that “feeling hungry is bad and can’t be trusted.” Other negative thoughts like “I’m not good at eating” are also harmful. In the long term, it teaches kids that they can’t listen to signals from inside their bodies. This can set them up for disordered eating and eating disorders. To prevent eating disorders, they need to be attuned to their internal appetite.

When a child has an eating disorder their internal appetite signals have been disrupted. They can relearn this critical connection during recovery with the help of an eating disorder therapist and dietitian.  

Help Kids Reach a Healthy Weight

By cutting out weight talk

Lots of parents treat weight as a problem to be solved. But studies show that their kids have more disordered eating habits. They are more likely to have eating disorder behaviors like restrictive eating and binge eating.

They also suffer from lower self-esteem, more body dissatisfaction, and are more likely to be depressed. This is regardless of whether that child is underweight, normal weight, or overweight. It also occurs whether the parent is talking about their child’s weight or their own. 

Studies have also shown that kids who grow up in families with negative weight talk have higher weight than those who don’t. That’s right. Just talking negatively about weight can impact your kids’ future weight.

Moms aren’t the only ones who impact their kids’ feelings about eating. This effect is even stronger for fathers who promote eating a certain way to lose weight or avoid gaining weight. The negative effects of weight talk are powerful. Their impact has been shown to last at least 15 years, following our kids into adulthood.

See our scientific library for the data behind these statements

To prevent eating disorders and disordered eating, avoid making weight an enemy to be conquered. This approach will help your child maintain a BMI that is natural and meant for them. Bodies are diverse, and the best approach is to accept their natural signals rather than control them. 

Help Kids Have Better Eating Esteem

By taking note of your tone

When talking to kids about food, be gentle, kind, and guiding, as well as very direct. Children are more likely to listen to directions when they feel respected, supported, and when they clearly understand your request.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Kids are less likely to comply with requests that are critical, shaming, and unclear. Worse? Such comments are known to lower self-esteem and cause overeating. 

For example, “Sweetheart, please take just one scoop so there is enough for everyone,” works much better than, “Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of calories!”, “After today, we can both start a diet”, or “You’ve been eating too much lately.”

Make Family Meals Easier

By being curious

Does your child have a particular eating habit you hate? Or is their focus on carbs or sugar or snack foods something you often worry about? While it’s natural to be concerned about eating habits, if they pick up on your stress or concern it could make the situation worse. 

Instead, ask yourself the “why” behind your worry and talk about it with a partner or professional. Letting your own eating or weight concerns get the best of you during meals can ramp up stress. This impacts everyone who is eating, including very young children. 

Research shows that even infants can pick up on stress during feeding. So if you approach meals with negative emotions, there’s a chance your child will feel anxious or afraid, too.

Keep it calm

Big emotions can also dis-regulate eating, decreasing or increasing your child’s appetite. This may inadvertently contribute more to whatever issue you’re concerned about instead of improving it.

If you do have a concern that you think needs to be addressed, take them away from the table. You can talk about your concerns and the most positive approaches to feeding with a pediatric dietitian and/or family therapist. They can provide positive ways to approach food and eating. 

While your child’s weight and shape will change as they age, their thoughts and feelings about foods and eating will stay with them into adulthood. Strive to create an attitude that’s relaxed and positive to prevent eating disorders. This will also support them in feeling good about food and their body.  

Amelia Sherry has a Masters in Public Health Nutrition, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Diabetes Counselor & Educator (CDCES). She’s also the founder of, a source of information and inspiration for mothers who want to raise girls protected from diet culture. Visit the site for access to free articles, downloads, and workshops.

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Yes, we can help prevent eating disorders! Recommendations for parents, educators and healthcare practitioners

By Laurie Dunham, MS, RD, LD, CEDRD

I’d like to help empower all parents, educators and healthcare practitioners to take an active role in preventing eating disorders. Right now we are seeing an increase in eating disorders in certain younger age groups. I believe that with proper education of adults, we could help reverse this trend.

On a large scale, it would be helpful if parents and adults who work with and care for children (from age 0-21) were aware of warning signs and risk factors involved in eating disorder development. For example, family members should be aware of whether they have any family history of eating disorders, addiction, depression, OCD and/or anxiety, all of which can be risk factors or co-occur and therefore should be monitored. Healthcare professionals and educators should be aware of the complexity of eating disorders and learn to avoid triggering language and messages when working with children and adolescents.

Healthcare Professionals

Pediatricians need to be reminded that Body mass index (BMI) is just a screening tool and that not every body fits nicely into the “recommended” healthy norms. A child/adolescent should be measured against his/her own growth curve. For example, if someone’s BMI has always been at the 90th percentile and a pediatrician recommends the child lose weight to stay within the guidelines of having a BMI within the 15th-85th percentile, this could trigger dietary restriction or over exercise and lead to an eating disorder, when the child may be perfectly healthy. The focus should always be on healthy lifestyle choices, not weight. Health care providers can talk about being physically active and including more fruits and vegetables in the diet. They can also refer to a registered dietitian for further nutrition counseling.


Schools should never take a role in weight education or any form of nutrition counseling with weight loss in mind. School is for educating about various subjects, but we just don’t find that most health teachers are qualified to speak about weight and eating without extra training, and thus can unintentionally contribute to eating disorders. Health teachers can talk in general about healthy practices but don’t need to get specific about “healthy” weights. The size of adolescents differs so much, that you can’t even say what “normal” is.

The classroom and gym are sensitive areas, and many teachers and coaches may not realize the impact of their words. Sure, many kids can hear general comments such as “you shouldn’t eat fast food” and be okay, but if you have just one child in the classroom that tends to be more perfectionistic or has family history of an eating disorder or anxiety, this could be what sends them over the edge into disordered eating behavior. Unless a teacher has been trained in the importance of language monitoring around weight and nutrition, they should avoid discussing both topics.


Parents should be educated about eating disorder prevention in much the same way they are educated about Internet safety, seat belt and bike helmet use, etc. In other words, the parent sets expectations for safety and health, and monitors the child’s behaviors to ensure both.

We know that having family history of mental illness, personality traits of perfectionism, anxiety, OCD, etc. places one at a higher risk for an eating disorder. We also know that the more a parent encourages dieting, the higher the occurrence of disordered eating behaviors. If a child/adolescent has any risk factors, this information should be shared with all parents without any suggestion of shame or blame, just fact. Having family history of certain illnesses or certain personality traits is nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty about. We need to talk about it more to decrease the stigma.

Children look to their parents as role models. If parents have issues with their own weight or body image, they may need to get help, . Many adults have disordered eating patterns, if not outright eating disorders, and it’s important to get treatment in order to be a parent who can model healthy eating and positive body image.

I recommend talking in non-specific terms about food. For example, instead of saying this food is good or bad, teach kids at an early age that there are foods we should eat every day and there are foods we have occasionally. When I talk to elementary aged kids I use the terminology “every day foods” and “sometimes” foods.

Additional nutritional guidelines to help prevent eating disorders:

  • stress that all foods can fit into a healthy style of eating
  • don’t comment on calories or weight
  • model healthy eating practices such as sitting at the table to eat, eating without distractions, putting food on a plate or in a bowl as opposed to eating out of a bag or box.
  • provide regularly scheduled meals so your child knows when to expect food
  • associate food with physical growth and development, not weight
  • adolescents should be eating more than their parents in most cases as they are going through a period of rapid growth
  • keep wholesome foods in the home. If parents purchase fat free, sugar free, low carb varieties of foods, kids learn that they too, should eat diet foods
  • teach kids to honor their own hunger and satiety cues
  • establish normal, healthy eating practices early on to help an adolescent feel confident in his or her eating abilities later in life
  • encourage cooking at home; you don’t need to cook gourmet meals, but try to have 4 food groups (protein, grains, vegetable, dairy & cook with healthy fats).
  • try to eat out less
  • don’t use food as a reward or punishment

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Laurie Dunham, MS, RD, LD, CEDRD, is Registered Dietitian II at the Eating Disorder Program at Cincinnati Children’s. The Eating Disorders Program serves all adolescents, male and female and gender nonconforming, with significantly unhealthy eating behaviors including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating / overeating. Cincinnati Children’s provides outpatient treatment to children, adolescents and young adults through age 21. Website

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5 phrases to never say to avoid eating disorders

The family dinner table can be a place of safety and love, a place at which everyone is nourished physically and emotionally. And yet, even the kindest families accidentally say these five phrases you should never say if you want to avoid eating disorders. It’s no surprise since we are steeped in diet culture and are determined to ignore the body’s intuition in exchange for weight loss.

When we are blinded by diet culture, we cannot imagine that any of the following phrases would be damaging to our children. But they are. Diet culture is a driving factor of eating disorders, and almost every person who has an eating disorder started at some point with the intention to lose weight. Many people who have recovered from eating disorders can remember dinner table conversations that contained the following phrases you should never say to prevent eating disorders.

Here are the five phrases to never say at the dinner table if you want to prevent eating disorders:

1. How many calories are in this?

Calories have been weaponized by diet culture as a key tool in the pursuit of weight loss, but they are simply a measure of energy, and a very rough one at that. Calorie counting gives dieters a sense of safety that if they follow some arbitrary rules about counting calories, they will get and stay slim. However, weight is not as simple as calories in and calories out. When we talk about calories at the dinner table, we are undermining natural hunger cues. We want our kids to be able to self-regulate and eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Artificially controlling food through calorie counting does the opposite.

2. I can’t eat that (or I’ll gain weight)

This statement reveals that you are controlling your diet in order to control your body. That’s called dieting. It’s also a core eating disorder behavior. A healthy relationship with food and your body is rooted in accepting that all foods are acceptable. With the exception of actual allergies, most people can eat all foods without fear. In fact, restricting foods tends to lead to binge eating. Food cravings are a natural part of our body’s communication with us. And ignoring food cravings most often results in a backlash at some point. Diet talk doesn’t belong at the table.

3. That is bad/unhealthy

Parents can prevent eating disorders and encourage a healthy relationship with food. To do this, they need to reject the idea that there are good and bad foods. The most common nutritional bad guy right now is sugar, followed closely by carbs. And yet there is no evidence that sugar is “bad.” And carbs are essential to bodies, particularly growing ones. Using the word “bad” for food sets up an inappropriate moral value on food. This can lead to eating disorder behaviors.

4. Are you really going to eat that?

This question is interpreted as the suggestion that a child should not eat that (whatever it is). Parents are responsible for the food that is served. But a child is responsible for the food that goes into their body. Parents should not insert themselves into such a personal choice. When they do, they risk the child’s sense of autonomy and dominion over their own body. Asking a child if they’re going to eat something will come off as criticism. And criticizing a child’s food is a risk factor for eating disorders.

5. One more bite

The flip side of insinuating that someone is eating too much is insisting that someone clean their plate. These comments may come from a desire to avoid wastefulness or increase health by eating more vegetables. If parents are following an Intuitive Eating mindset, they can trust that a child is capable of determining when to stop eating. This applies to all foods without prejudice. Living in a diet culture means we are constantly bombarded with messages about ignoring natural hunger cues. But we can help our kids maintain their inborn sense of hunger and fullness by never messing with their sense of when they are “done.”

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

Book recommendation

Born to Eat_FC with sticker

Born to Eat is a book for parents about eating. Eating is an innate skill that has been overcomplicated by marketing schemes and a dieting culture. It’s time to leave the dieting culture behind for the whole family. It starts with the baby’s first bite! Learn more by following the authors on Instagram.

Leslie Schilling, MA, RDN is a nationally recognized registered dietitian & nutrition expert. She’s been featured in Women’s Health, BuzzFeed, Yahoo News, the Huffington Post, USNews, and on HGTV. Leslie is a self-proclaimed anti-diet dietitian who teaches health through self-care and pleasurable eating. When she’s not cooking with her family, she’s likely shopping for ingredients near her home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist. She is the coauthor of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook For Dummies and Adrenal Fatigue For Dummies. As with all military spouses, she wears many hats, but her favorite is her role as a mama. She splits her time between Austin, Texas; San Diego, California; and Europe.

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Weight stigma and your child: what parents need to know

Weight stigma and your child: what parents need to know

Parents need to know the dangers of weight stigma because it impacts everyone. And whether your child is thin, fat*, or in between, their health is impacted by weight stigma.

A word about the word “fat”

The term “fat” can be used as a slur or a neutral descriptor. In its neutral form, saying “fat” is the same as saying “tall” or “brown-eyed.” Other words for fat bodies, such as “overweight” and “obese,” are currently considered to be stigmatizing. Many fat justice leaders have reclaimed the word “fat” as the preferred neutral descriptor for their bodies.

However, we should not call someone “fat” unless we 1) are doing so kindly 2) have zero thoughts that they should lose weight; and 3) clearly have their permission to do so. And nobody should ever use “fat” as an insult. It’s always best to let people who live in marginalized bodies to define themselves rather than assuming a label on their behalf. And never tell a person in a larger body that they are “not fat” or should be proud to be fat. It’s their body and their choice to define themselves on their own terms.

Popular media and healthcare providers scream about the dangers of fat. But the real danger is weight stigma and weight discrimination. Weight stigma contributes to physical and mental health complications. These include weight cycling (a natural and expected physiological response to dieting) and eating disorders. Therefore we need to tackle weight stigma in order to reduce these risks to our kids’ health.

What is weight stigma?

Weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight. It reflects internalized societal attitudes toward body size and impacts how we treat each other. Therefore understanding and counteracting weight stigma will help your child avoid body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

Weight stigma is damaging for people who are larger. But it’s also bigotry that impacts people of all body sizes. Ask just about anyone walking down the street today and they are likely carrying internalized weight stigma and body loathing. This impacts their feelings about their body and themselves. There is no benefit to weight stigma, and there are many downsides.

The media and weight stigma

Media and entertainment outlets frequently portray strongly biased views of people who live in larger bodies. They promote weight stigma constantly by depicting fat people in dehumanizing and stigmatizing images. These include newspapers, magazines, books, movies, documentaries, videos, photographs, social media accounts, and more.

The media shows fat people eating fattening foods, sitting, and wearing tight, ill-fitting clothing. But it shows thin people eating colorful salads, exercising, and looking stylish.

The media portrays fat people as lazy, weak-willed, self-indulgent, and a drain on the nation’s resources. This is an ignorant and bigoted presentation. It has solidified the strong belief that fat is bad and thin is good. It’s important to note that the media’s revenue comes from advertising. It’s undeniable that the +$70 billion weight loss industry supports the very existence of our media outlets.

Healthcare and weight stigma

The second leading source of weight stigma is people in the medical and healthcare professions. This creates a significant barrier to healthcare for anyone who lives in a larger body. No visit to the doctor, regardless of the purpose, begins without an attempt to weigh the body.

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. This is despite the fact that there is no proven, safe, and effective method for reducing weight.

Weight stigma in healthcare often results in delayed diagnosis and treatment for many people who have serious medical conditions. Doctors are notoriously fat-phobic. Surveys show the majority of doctors actively dislike larger patients. And this is a major problem considering that more than 60% of their patient population is plus-size.

The playground and weight stigma

Our kids grow up in an ecosystem that is full of weight stigma. As early as preschool, children prefer thin figures in drawings and stories [1]. By elementary school, larger children report unsatisfactory peer relations, including social rejection [2].

Children who are larger are at increased risk for being targets of weight-related teasing [3]. And they also experience more non-weight-related teasing and bullying [4], and other forms of victimization such as physical aggression [5].

As early as the first grade, fat kids are treated differently by their peers. They are more likely to be treated poorly and be disliked. They often struggle with loneliness and friendships. Larger children are more likely to be rejected, made fun of, teased, picked on, and disliked [6].

This is the trickle-down effect of parents, teachers, doctors, and the media actively promoting weight stigma. Children are ostracized, bullied, and discriminated against. And this trauma has lifelong consequences that are much more serious than adipose tissue.

Weight stigma leads to poor health and eating disorders

The “War on Obesity” has failed to reduce the national weight. It has, however, succeeded in increasing weight stigma, which many researchers say is deeply health-damaging. Some people suggest that weight shaming is good because it encourages kids to lose weight. But weight teasing and bullying in adolescence leads to higher (not lower) weight 15 years later.

This means that the “War on Obesity” is actually causing people to gain weight. People who are exposed to weight stigma are also more likely to exhibit eating disorder behaviors including extreme dieting and self-induced vomiting [7].

In cultures with fat stigma, we see more young women who express dissatisfaction or disgust with their bodies, which is an essential precursor (and continuing accompaniment) of eating disorders. [8]. 

There is a strong relationship between the “obesity epidemic” and the proliferation of eating disorders. “If fat bodies were accepted and not hated in our culture, fat people would not embark on restrictive eating or disordered eating in order to lose weight, and the majority would not develop eating disorders.” [9]

You may think it’s healthy to put your child on a diet. But diets have serious consequences. Instead, parents should help them manage the impact and reduce kids’ exposure to weight stigma.

What you can do at home

How you treat your child at home can be an important way to reduce their risk of eating disorders. A home that rejects weight stigma and dieting is safer for your child’s body and mind. And it’s also the right thing to do. No other marginalized community is as openly ridiculed and hated as fat people, and that’s simply unacceptable.

Here are a few basic rules to implement at home. Enforce these rules across all family members and anyone who enters your home without exception. Your child needs to know that bigotry and discrimination are not allowed or acceptable, no matter what.

1. No diets

Nobody in the home should even go on a restrictive diet with the purpose of losing weight. Read why

2. Stop food policing

A wide variety of food should be available to everyone in the home without restriction or monitoring. Read why

3. Don’t fat shame

Don’t allow anyone to tease or criticize another person’s body. This applies to anyone in the family, outside of the family, a celebrity, a stranger, etc. Read why

4. Avoid glorifying body-types

Everyone should learn to avoid making comments about “perfect bodies” and glorifying any particular body type. Don’t praise people for weight loss, discuss methods to achieve weight loss or a “perfect butt,” “washboard abs,” etc.

5. No scales

There is no reason to keep a scale in the home. Throw it away.

6. Health at Every SizeⓇ philosophy

Learn about and embrace the HAES approach to health. Read why

What you can do at school

School is the place in which your child is most at risk of fat stigma. Approximately 43% of larger adolescents reported being teased by peers [10]. Therefore to help your child avoid weight stigma, you must advocate for unbiased schools and classrooms. Here are a few goals for your child’s school environment:

1. Language

Health should not be linked to body weight. Dieting of any kind should never be promoted.

2. Dress codes

Dress codes disproportionately impact people who are larger. Make sure your school is fighting weight stigma by eliminating dress codes. Or at least be sure to enforce them consistently across all body sizes.

3. Weighing

Children should not be weighed at school. There is no educational justification for weighing children at school. School weigh-ins perpetuate weight stigma and have no value. Read why

It may be tricky to advocate for your child’s safety at school, but it is essential. Want ideas? Read Lindo Bacon’s guide for teachers and administrators. 

What you can do at the doctor’s office

Weight stigma in the healthcare setting is pervasive and leads to lifetime health impacts. People who experience weight stigma attend fewer doctors visits, screenings, immunizations, and more. Help your child learn to navigate the health system by doing the following:

1. Don’t talk about weight

Doctors have been advised by their pediatric association not to discuss weight with children. There are many good reasons for this. The pediatric association knows that weight stigma is a problem. And although many doctors still bring up weight in front of children, parents can confidently interrupt and stop such conversations.

2. Don’t tell my child to “watch” their weight

Tell your doctor not to suggest weight loss – even the seemingly benign “move more/eat less,” which is entirely unhelpful. Additionally, the term “watch your weight” was coined by Weight Watchers, a multi-billion dollar company that profits off weight stigma. There is no medical evidence that “watching” weight is health-promoting. And it can lead to dangerous preoccupation and obsession with weight.

3. Treat my child without bias

Weight bias is unconscious, which is why it’s so damaging in the healthcare setting. Bring it to the forefront by stating openly that you are dedicated to fighting weight bias. By making it open and conscious, you reduce your child’s exposure through thoughtless comments.

You may feel intimidated and uncomfortable advocating for your child in this way, but you simply must. If your child’s doctor is not open to having these discussions with you, then you must find a different doctor. Period.

Fight the good fight

Our children need to learn anti-discrimination practices. These include fighting for the unbiased treatment of people who have marginalized race, sexuality, gender and gender identity, and weight. Since weight stigma is openly promoted in our culture, this is a revolutionary but much-needed act.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.


[1] Su & Aurelia, Preschool children’s perceptions of overweight peers, Journal of Early Childhood Research, 2011

[2] Gable, Krull, & Chang, Implications of Overweight Onset and Persistence for Social and Behavioral Development Between Kindergarten Entry and Third Grade, Applied Developmental Science, 2009

[3] Gray, Kahhan, & Janicke, Implications of Overweight Onset and Persistence for Social and Behavioral Development Between Kindergarten Entry and Third Grade, 2009

[4] Gunnarsdottir, Njardvik, et al., Teasing and social rejection among obese children enrolling in family-based behavioural treatment: Effects on psychological adjustment and academic competencies, International Journal of Obesity 2012

[5] Hayden-Wade et al., Prevalence, characteristics, and correlates of teasing experiences among overweight children vs. non-overweight peers, Obesity Research, 2005

[6] AW Harrist, TM Swindle, et al, The Social and Emotional Lives of Overweight, Obese, and Severely Obese Children, Child Development, 2016

[7] Puhl, et al., The Role of Stigma in Weight Loss Maintenance Among U.S. Adults, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2017

[8] Polivy and Herman, Causes of Eating Disorders, Annual Review of Psychology, 2002

[9] Watkins P., Hugmever A. D., Teaching about eating disorders from a Fat Studies perspective, Transformations, 2012

[10] Van den Berg, Neumark-Sztainer, et al, Racial/ethnic differences in weight-related teasing in adolescents, Obesity, 2008

[11] Reiter-Purtill, Ridel, et al, The benefits of reciprocated friendships for treatment-seeking obese youth, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 2010