Like many parents, you've considered the importance of setting a good example for your kids in many areas of your life, but are your dieting habits detrimental to your children's health and well-being? Current diet culture promotes unhealthy extremes and poor body image, polarizing food as "good" or "bad" — and this is incredibly damaging to a child's ability to develop a healthy or normal relationship with food. The Framingham Children's Study showed that children whose parents showed the highest levels of restrictive dieting followed by post-diet overeating were most likely to be overweight compared to children of parents who did not follow cycles of dieting and overeating. Here are four ways that extreme dieting behavior harms your child.
If you find yourself getting emotional each time you step on the scale, be aware that your child is watching. A child's perception of the importance of weight has a dramatic influence on his body esteem. Research shows that children as young as 5 years old are aware of their weight status compared to their peers, leading to dieting at a young age and resulting in a variety of concerns from obesity to eating disorders.
2. Tendency to diet younger
Multiple research studies have confirmed that children who diet at a younger age are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, regardless of weight status when they started dieting. Children as young as preschool age are likely to consider dieting behaviors if a parent is on a diet.
3. Polarized view of food
Although you may have good intentions, categorizing your child's food into "good" or "bad" foods tends to backfire, leading to restrictive behaviors with food, disordered eating and even food shaming of peers.
4. Confusion on the topic of healthy eating
I once worked with a male client whose mother dieted for most of his childhood. When we started working together, he had very little concept of how to put together a healthy, balanced meal. It's understandable that he was confused. How could he know what "healthy" was when he saw his mother bounce from one diet to the next with a new set of food rules every few months? As we worked together and he discovered how to eat well without following crazy diet rules, he was able to lose weight, and his body easily maintains a healthy weight for him — without the rules, restrictions and astronomical failures that come with dieting.
If you're hoping to set a better example for your children, consider an alternative to the extreme diets of our day. Model a balanced approach to healthy eating. Teach your children how to create healthy, balanced meals and how to enjoy treats in moderation. Avoid using negative terms such as "dangerous" or "bad" to describe foods. Teach children to see the good in themselves and in others, regardless of weight or size. By doing this, you'll improve your child's relationship with food, preventing unnecessary weight gain later in life.