How to protect kids from the negative impacts of diet culture

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(NEW YORK) — Children are often exposed to diet culture from a young age and its negative impacts can be long-lasting, according to author Virginia Sole-Smith.

Sole-Smith is the author of a new book titled Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, which takes a closer look at how kids are exposed to body shaming, diet culture, fatphobia and more.

Young people are listening and the pressure to look a certain way starts early, Sole-Smith told ABC News’ Good Morning America.

“Kids start to learn that fat is the wrong way to have a body between the ages of 3 and 5. This is pressure that starts really early,” Sole-Smith said. “One of the top predictors of future eating disorder risk is kids being shamed for their weight and childhood dieting experiences.”

The pressure continues into adolescence as well. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2013 to 2019, between 2013 and 2016, nearly 37.6% of adolescents aged 16 to 19 reported trying to lose weight within the previous year.

Early exposure to diet culture may be linked to increased social media use. Child psychologist Andrea Vazzana told ABC News in March that she has noticed an increase in younger children with eating disorders, including tweens as young as 9 and 10.

“This may be correlational data, but we’re seeing people joining social media platforms at an earlier age as well,” Vazzana said at the time.

Recovery advocate Sam Dylan Finch told ABC News that although social media can play a positive role in eating disorder recovery, it can also have a negative impact.

“It can be a vehicle for fad diets, health misinformation, harsh criticism, especially for those of us that don’t conform to society’s ideals of beauty and achievement,” Dylan Finch said in March, “and perpetuates standards of perfection that are impossible to achieve.”

Tips to minimize negative diet culture impact

Reclaim the “fat” label

In Fat Talk, Sole-Smith argues that one way parents can fight back against anti-fat bias and diet culture is to reclaim the word “fat.”

“If we can understand fat as just a neutral body descriptor, just like saying tall or short or brown hair, blonde hair … if your child comes to you and they are in a bigger body, and they say, ‘Am I fat?’ you should be honest with them and say, ‘You’re fat.’ And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. We love your body just the way it is,” Sole-Smith said.

Define what “fat” means for your family

At the same time, reclaiming the term might not be the right move for every family, according to parenting expert and author Rachel Simmons.

“I think the word ‘fat’ is something everyone needs to make their own choices about,” Simmons said. “I think that the language that we use has to be something that we agree on as a family.”

Change the conversation at home

Another suggestion from Sole-Smith is for parents to shift the conversations with and in front of children at home.

“We can say I’m not going to shame my body in front of my kids and I’m going to celebrate bodies in all shapes and sizes,” the author recommended.

Simmons added separately, “As parents, we need to spend time reminding our children what matters about them on the inside, talk about the strength that your body has no matter what size it is.”

“So if you have a child who is in a bigger body, who’s strong, talk about their strength,” Simmons continued. “Helping our children celebrate how our bodies function, how they allow us to accomplish our goals … these are things we can remind our kids about every single day.”

Oftentimes, diet talk and conversations about size can be unavoidable for children, but Simmons said parents can act as a shield between children and some of the most toxic messages behind diet culture.

As children grow older, Simmons encourages parents to be honest with kids about their own struggles and not pretend they know everything and kids know nothing about diet culture.

If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or NationalEatingDisorders.org.

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