How We Talk to Kids About Food and Body Image
Article is adapted from material originally published on The Healthy and Mom
Whether it comes from a caregiver, teacher or friend, many can remember the first time a loved one commented on their body or the food they were eating. Unfortunately, these words can have a long-term effect on one’s self-image and eating habits.
When the topic of adolescence comes up, it’s easy to recall the impact these food and body comments had. Children and adolescents are observant and perceptive, often modeling the behavior of adults in their lives to guide their own choices.
While we’d like to believe that society is moving toward more acceptance and celebration of diverse body types, for many kids, and even adults, social media pressures are real. Additionally, many caregivers might still be suffering from poor body image brought on by decades of diet industry messaging and marketing. Adults and caregivers need to continuously communicate to children that the way we look is only one part of who we are. Keeping this in mind, they can serve as positive role models in their own behaviors around food and body image, both in person and on social media.
It’s important for caregivers to examine their own attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and behaviors about food, weight, body image, physical appearance, health and exercise. What’s even more important overall is that caregivers “own it” (i.e., recognize and acknowledge) when they are not modeling this -- and make a proactive effort to change their own beliefs and behaviors.
Here are some examples of unhelpful statements that caregivers sometimes make in front of their kids and the lasting impact such statements can have.
“I can’t have this [dessert, fried foods, etc.] because I’m on a diet and trying to lose weight.”
Otherwise known as: “I was so bad today and ate cake!”
There are no foods that should be off-limits or totally banned from homes. Thinking about our behavior as bad versus good can set up feelings of deprivation and unhealthy patterns for children. Remember that adults serve as key role models for their children. Using words like “diet” and outwardly discussing wanting to lose weight is inappropriate and harmful. This can create feelings of deprivation and unhealthy patterns around our worth and food. A caregiver’s goal is to help children learn that there are no foods that should be off-limits or considered “bad.”
“I’m going to fast tomorrow since I ate so much today.”
This can perpetuate an unhealthy pattern of eating behaviors that we see in many individuals, referred to as the “binge/restriction cycle.” This is a pattern of disordered eating influenced by both physical and emotional signals in the body -- eating larger amounts of food, which induces feelings of guilt and shame, which results in period of restriction of intake—only to set up recurring patterns of physical hunger, then craving, which once again will result in the consumption of excessive food.
“I’m so upset about the size of my belly; I’m going to start a specific diet to lose the belly fat” OR “I am going to start a specific diet to lose the fat in this specific area.”
This statement only perpetuates the misinformation that many kids and adolescents are exposed to on social media, that somehow one can fix certain parts of their body with “magic” pills, diets or remedies (cue the recent “egg trend” on TikTok). This type of information contributes to the rise in unhealthy eating and dieting behavior among children and teens, which is often a precursor to the development of eating disorders. Therefore, it’s crucial that caregivers model appropriate and accurate information around health and eating.
“I feel guilty about my eating habits. I am going to exercise for hours tomorrow to work it off.”
Exercise is important for the body. It promotes health for all muscles, including the heart. That is the purpose of exercise and movement; it strengthens the heart, a vital organ, and improves muscle tone, which is especially important for aging children.
The purpose of exercise should not be focused on weight loss or seen as a compensatory behavior for eating. Many individuals who struggle with eating disorders engage in compulsive exercise, which is not healthy or helpful. By exercising for our health, and not our appearance, we can promote healthful movement and activity that is joyful and promotes health and well-being.
Something important to note is that it is okay if a caregiver makes a mistake with their language or engages in negative self-talk from time to time. Everyone slips up, they’re human and are likely battling their own negative beliefs. Most of the time, they probably do not even realize that what they are saying or doing is coming out in a negative manner. What’s important is that this isn’t consistent behavior, and once again, that a caregiver “owns it,” apologizes, and corrects the behavior.
Helping a child develop a positive body image has the potential to change the way they look at themselves and their body for the rest of their lives. This process requires a lot of patience and using intentional words, but it will benefit everyone in the long-term. The goal is to raise a child who is happy and healthy and believes they are the best version of themself.