You may think that it’s strange that a dietitian is advocating that we all diet less. The truth is that diets don’t work. Diet culture is abhorrent and it sucks you in from a really young age and leads you to believe that you are the problem, when in reality, diet culture is the problem.

Teens are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of diet culture because their social and emotional development is not yet complete. There is often a mismatch between how teens look and how they act and as an adult you may not be able to understand why they react emotionally to things that you would usually think rationally about¹. One of these very sensitive topics is weight.

BODY IMAGE

Teens are unusually preoccupied with body size and shape and often suffer from poor body image , which is their mental self-concept and perception of their body size. Basically, what everyone else sees is not at all what they see. Many teens will describe themselves as overweight, despite having a healthy BMI. They are strongly influenced by their peer groups and all forms of media (especially social media) and have a diminishing trust for adults and authority figures². This is kind of a recipe for disaster, because it leaves teens looking for answers in the wrong places. Because of all of these factors, teens are very likely to start dieting at an early age and may even develop disordered patterns of eating. Logically, we know that following a healthy, nutrient dense diet is the best way to maintain your weight, but teens tend to take things to the extreme. In a study conducted in 2017, fasting (or refraining from food for more than 24 hours) was found to be practiced by up to 17% of female and 7% of male U.S. high school students³. No wonder these extreme dieting practices are placing teens at risk for nutritional deficiencies and nutrition related issues down the line. So, what can we do about it?

 

EDUCATE YOUR TEEN ABOUT HEALTHY HABITS

It’s vital that you focus your attention on helping your teen understand what a diverse, balanced meal looks like, how to honour their hunger and satiety cues and to teach them their way around the kitchen. These nudges in the right direction will help them make better choices now and as they grow up⁴.

You cannot control every aspect of their diet and actually, by trying to do that you will probably do more harm than good. Avoid the purposeful restriction or unnecessary labelling of foods, especially those that are deemed unhealthy (like high fat, high sugar foods). These foods are not ‘bad’ and eating them will not make you ‘unhealthy’ or ‘fat’. These foods should be termed ‘sometimes’ foods. Forcing your child to eat what is on their plate and then rewarding them with a ‘sometimes’ food (like chocolate) will reinforce the idea that their regular food is something to dislike, while the ‘sometimes’ foods are a reward/ something to be revered ⁵-¹º. Restricting your child’s access to palatable foods may limit their food intake at that meal, but will foster overeating (or even secret eating) in the long run¹¹. Excessively monitoring your teen’s food choices and intake will also disrupt his/ her awareness of a response to physiological cues towards hunger and satiety ¹². Planning a well balanced diet that contains enough energy for growth and daily activities as well as sufficient variety to prevent nutrient deficiencies is key.

Focus your time and energy on encouraging healthy behaviours like prioritising family meals, eating a variety of foods and planning appropriately so that meals are not skipped  (which can lead to excessive snacking or hunger).

MAKE SMALL, HEALTHFUL CHANGES AS A FAMILY

No child (and this includes teens) should ever be put on a diet. Diets are restrictive in nature and contain damaging messages that complicate family meals and take away from the pleasure of eating. Not sure about any of you, but I clearly remember being a teen on a diet and I can tell you that in hindsight, it was not healthy and it definitely did not make me happy or improve my relationship with my parents, food or with my own body. We often assume that small portion sizes, fat restriction and calorie awareness are important if you want to maintain a healthy/ desirable weight. Research has shown, time and time again, that these methods will backfire and instead of losing weight (or even maintaining weight), these strategies are associated with preoccupation with food, eating in the absence of hunger, poorer self-esteem and further weight gain¹⁴-¹⁷.

This is not to say that we should not be healthy, but rather that the family, as a unit, should be practicing healthy behaviours regularly and sustainably. The purpose of this is not to get your teen to eat less or to help them lose weight, but rather to help them form a healthy relationship with their body and with food that will carry with them into adulthood¹⁸. Include your children in planning, shopping, cooking and getting meals on the table. Start small and work up.

 

DEVELOP EATING COMPETENCE

The ideal relationship to have with food is a positive, comfortable and flexible one. You want to help your teen foster a ‘matter-of-fact’ relationship with eating enough food of all types with a weight neutral stance. Competent eater’s have a better quality diet, better medical and lab tests, have lower BMIs, are more active, sleep better, feel better about themselves, and do better socially and emotionally. Interestingly, the eating competence model doesn’t prescribe what or how much to eat and says nothing about how much you should weigh¹⁹-²º.

 

SOME OF THE PRINCIPLES INCLUDE:

  • Help your teen take an interest in food and experiment with unfamiliar foods
  • Trust your teen to eat enough (according to their individual hunger and satiety)
  • Help your teen take the time to eat (regular meals and snacks)
  • Encourage mindful eating (i.e. pay attention while eating)

CONCLUSION

Making small steps in the right direction may feel a bit slow at first, but teaching your teen how to eat can be more important than what they eat. Consistency is key and forming sustainable, life-long practices will ensure that your teen has a well-rounded and healthy outlook on nutrition, exercise and body image. Help your teen forge a new path and let’s all beat diet culture one step at a time.

 

 

REFERENCES

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    2. Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S, Raymond J. Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process. 13th ed.: Elsevier; 2012.
    3. Eaton DK, Kann L, Kinchen S. et al. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2011 MMWR Surveill Summ 4, 2012;61: 1-162.
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    11. Faith MS, Scanlon KS, Birch L. Parent-child feeding strategies and their relationships to child eating and weight status. Obes Res. 2004 Nov; 12(11).
    12. Birch LL FJ. Mothers’ child-feeding practices influence daughters’ eating and weight. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000; 71.
    13. Drucker RR, Hammer LD, Agras WS, Bryson S. Can mothers influence their child’s eating behavior? J Dev Behav Pediatr. 1999; 20.(2):88-92.
    14. Patton GC, Selzer R, Coffey C, Carlin JB, Wolfe R. Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. BMJ. 1999; 318: 765–768.