Understanding diet culture and how it may impact disordered eating in children and teens

Posted on 02/23/24 08:27:am Diet culture


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By Elizabeth Stewart, LPC-MHSP T, clinical services supervisor, Nashville; and Maxine Cimperman, MS, RD, CEDS-C, registered dietitian, Nashville

An estimated 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Everyone is at risk for an eating disorder—no matter their gender, age, race, or socioeconomic status. However, studies show young girls face a significantly elevated risk, with as many as 57% of adolescent girls engaging in dieting, taking laxatives, or self-inducing vomiting.

Although we can never pinpoint a single cause, diet culture can be a contributing factor.

What is diet culture?

Diet culture is a set of beliefs that considers weight or weight loss more important than overall health and well-being. Diet culture is exacerbated by incessant advertising that touts diet programs, exercise equipment, and weight loss products. Just last year, an estimated $160 billion dollars were spent promoting the weight loss industry in the U.S.

The diet culture we experience today has the potential to negatively impact a child’s mental health and body image. It may result in a person:

  • Restricting calories or cutting out food groups
  • Feeling they must earn their food or justify their food consumption
  • Engaging in punishing exercise versus mindful and enjoyable activity
  • Using eating or exercise habits to define one’s moral character
  • Tying their self-worth to their size/shape/beauty

What is disordered eating?

Dieting is the one of the most common forms of disordered eating, along with restrictive eating, compulsive eating, or irregular and inflexible eating patterns.

10 warning signs of disordered eating:

  • Fixation with reading nutrition labels and restricting calories
  • Repeatedly looking in mirrors
  • Intense negative emotional outbursts that are out of the norm
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Complaints of always being too cold or bloated
  • Dizziness or fainting with minimal physical exertion
  • Clothing choices that hide the body
  • Hoarding food, eating alone or in secret
  • Weight loss or weight fluctuations that appear abnormal for development
  • Target of appearance-related bullying

Disordered eating behaviors, especially dieting, are among the most common risk factors for the development of an eating disorder.

How can I create a healthy environment around food at home for my child?

Parents and caregivers can do several things to help a child develop a healthy relationship with food.

Create consistent meal routines where everyone eats together at the table is a good start. While eating, focus on making connections with everyone, keeping conversations fun. Don’t make meals a battleground.

Offer a wide variety of foods at home. Teach your children and teens how to include foods for health, versus talking about excluding foods. Refrain from labeling food as “good” versus “bad,” or “healthy” versus “junk.” Encourage your child to listen to their body and trust their cues.

Keep in mind that children and teens are extremely observant, and they will likely do as you do. They tend to internalize your words and live them out as their own beliefs and messages. Consider how the diet culture has impacted your own views on body image, food, and overall wellbeing—no one is completely exempt from its influence!

Be sure to address eating or body image concerns with someone from a curious, nonjudgemental approach and know when to seek professional support.

Eating disorder treatment at Rogers

Rogers provides inpatient, residential, PHP and IOP treatment for children, teens, and adults in a growing number of communities nationwide. Additionally, Rogers’ Los Angeles offers treatment for ARFID/Severe picking eating recovery. Call 800-767-4411 for a free, confidential screening.

Call 800-767-4411 or go to rogersbh.org to request a free screening.