A guide for parents about diet culture and eating disorders
Diet culture is the belief that all bodies can and should be thin, and that diets (food restriction and exercise), are simple solutions to losing weight.
Diet culture is the natural response to weight stigma, which criticizes and discriminates against larger bodies. Diet culture actively prescribes eating disorder behaviors including restriction, counting calories, weighing yourself, measuring food portions and body weight, and “no excuses” exercise programs.
Diet culture is a direct cause of eating disorders. The good news is that there is a healthier way that will benefit everyone in your household: the non-diet lifestyle. When you adopt a non-diet approach to health, you focus on healthy behaviors without focusing on weight loss.
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Diet culture is the idea that intentional weight loss is possible and healthy. It’s supported and heavily marketed by the $73 billion weight loss industry. To visualize diet culture, just close your eyes for a minute and think about the magazine ads, billboards, social media posts, and articles you have seen that promote weight loss as the path to health and happiness.
Diet culture absolutely surrounds us. It is impossible to live in our society and not be immersed in diet culture. It’s on billboards, television, and social media, but it is also in doctor’s offices, classrooms, places of worship, playing fields, workplaces, and, of course, in people’s homes. Despite promises of making us healthier, dieting damages health, and predicts eating disorders.
Diets Predict Eating Disorders
Diet behaviors are eating disorder behaviors. That’s why it’s so important for parents to fight diet culture at home. Diets literally provide a manual for having an eating disorder.
Not all diets turn into full-blown eating disorders, but a teen who diets is up to 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder. People are more likely to develop eating disorders if they diet and are virtually guaranteed not to improve their health with a diet.
We want our kids to be healthy, and lots of us were taught that health is based on weight. But our pursuit of diets has not improved our health. Adults who have dieted are less healthy than adults who haven’t. And all diets put everyone in a dangerous eating disorder mindset.
Diet Behavior is Eating Disorder Behavior
Eating disorders are much more than diets. But diet behavior lines up perfectly with eating disorder behavior:
- Focus on weight loss/control
- Restrict food to lose weight
- Exercise to lose weight
- Count calories, macros, pounds lost, etc.
- Measure food to limit calories
- Use weight loss to measure “success”
It’s best if nobody in your home is using diet behaviors while your child is in eating disorder treatment because it reinforces eating disorder behavior.
Dieting Is a National Event
At any given time, about one-third of Americans are on a diet. And yet, as we keep hearing, our weights continue to rise. So what’s up? Well, it turns out that even though diet culture promises to help us lose weight, dieting actually predicts weight gain.
That’s definitely not what it promises, is it? It’s so bad that a massive federally-funded Medicare study failed to find a diet that didn’t cause weight cycling, nor could they identify any health benefits of going on a diet.
Diet culture presents a simplistic view of human biology. Most diets combine some variation of “eat less and move more.” But despite what we’ve been taught, weight is not a simple equation of calories in and calories out. It is not solely based on our behaviors. Weight is actually mostly genetically determined. If weight loss were a simple problem solved with a diet, we would have evidence of that by this point. But we don’t.
The most likely outcome of dieting is weight gain, not loss. Why does this happen? Most likely because biology beats psychology. Our bodies are programmed to respond to intentional weight loss in exactly the same way as they do famine. Our metabolism slows down and we become preoccupied, even obsessed with food. This is why dieting strongly predicts binge eating, weight gain, and eating disorders.
When we lose weight, our bodies fight to 1) regain the weight lost; and 2) gain a little more to protect against the next famine. Diet companies tell us the reason we regain weight is a lack of willpower. But it’s actually that our bodies are far more powerful than our minds when it comes to weight.
A Non-Diet Approach
But don’t worry! You can still focus on health! The non-diet approach is pro-health – it just doesn’t use weight loss as a goal or measurement of success.
The non-diet approach is not just sitting back and not caring for yourself. It prioritizes health behaviors that are within our control and actually improve health. For example, the largest impact on our health and longevity is the quality of our social connections. Having friends, building supportive communities, and avoiding loneliness are even more important to our health than not smoking or drinking excessively. And it’s vastly more important than weight status. It’s also within our power to change and has zero negative consequences.
A non-diet approach to health improves cardiometabolic health, nutrition, exercise behavior, sleep, and other positive health behaviors.
We hope you and your whole family will adopt a non-diet approach to health because it’s healthier for all of you! But also, we hope you’ll choose it for the sake of your child’s recovery. Continuing to endorse diet culture in your home while your child has an eating disorder will reinforce the eating disorder.
Non-Diet Health Behaviors
There’s so much we can do to raise healthy kids without dieting! Here are just a few ideas:
- Improve and deepen family relationships and connection
- Seek community and belonging with other people
- Practice stress management and attend to your mental health
- Eat a variety of food regularly to fuel your body
- Move your body unless sick, fatigued, or medically advised not to
- Drink enough fluids to stay hydrated
- Get at least the minimum number of hours of sleep recommended for your age every night
The non-diet lifestyle puts the focus back where it belongs: our health!
A Policy of Body Respect
We suggest implementing a Policy of Body Respect in all households with an eating disorder.
Body Respect: Bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and all people – of all sizes – are worthy of dignity & respect.
Self Respect: We speak about our own bodies with respect, and we don’t criticize or speak cruelly about our bodies.
Respect For Others: We speak about other bodies with respect, and we don’t criticize or speak cruelly about other bodies.
Family Boundaries: As your parent, I will do my best to protect you from body shaming. I will respectfully speak up when I witness body shaming inside and outside this house.
Get a free copy of these principles out and post them in a prominent place.
Body Image Printable Worksheets
Give your child the best tools to feel calmer and more confident in their body!
- Boost confidence
- Improve self-esteem
- Increase media literacy
< More About The Causes Of Eating Disorders
Key Articles About Diet Culture
free cheat sheet: Parenting A Child With An Eating Disorder
⭐ Get ready for recovery and find out how you can prepare yourself for maximum success.
⭐ Find out the essential steps and family rules you need to have in place for recovery.
⭐ Make your home recovery-ready with six simple steps that anyone can do.