protect your children from food and body shame

Forget WW! How to Protect Your Children from Food & Body Shame

The top question I receive from family, friends, and people on social media is, “How do I raise my child to have a healthy relationship with food and body?”.

For many people, they reach out to me because they have struggled, often since childhood, with disordered eating, chronic dieting, and body hatred and desperately do not want to pass that on to their child. Couple that very understandable parental anxiety with a weight and food phobic culture, it’s very natural to feel utterly confused and stressed about how to handle everything from cupcakes to weight check-ups at the doctor.

I had prepared a version of this article in my head a dozen times over many months and then last week hit and WW (formerly Weight Watchers) released their new app, Kurbo, which is geared towards children aged 8 and up. Needless to say, all hell broke loose among eating disorder professionals and we took to social media to take a stand against Kurbo. That’s when I got my butt in gear to actually write this thing! At the bottom of this article, I’ll provide links to information on why the Kurbo app is so very, very harmful. Short version: Do not download this app for your child!!

children may develop an eating disorder rather than sustain weight loss from dieting

It’s obviously beyond the scope of a single article to teach you all of the important things about raising children in a diet culture. Heck, I’ve been studying this for over a decade and still have lots to learn. But I’d like to provide you with some basic “do’s” and “don’ts” to get you started, along with some phenomenal resources to help you deepen your understanding.

**Please, there is nothing that I am writing to you that is intended to shame or discourage. If you find that you have done something on the “don’t” list, do not despair! We ALL are a work in progress. Learning, growing, changing is what we do as humans and is a wonderful thing to model to our children. Also, hold these suggestions in the spirit of striving rather than perfectionism.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, here are 15 ideas to protect your children from food and body shame.

  1. Have as many family meals together as you can. Worry less about nutrients and what your child puts on their plate and more about enjoyment and together time. When children are in a low pressure environment, with access to a wide variety of foods and positive parental modeling, they tend to do just fine with their eating over time.
  2. Have fun with food! Let your little one get messy while exploring something they’ve never tried before. Invite your kids into the kitchen to help with food prep even though it will make the process twice as long. Skewering veggie kabobs and dipping chicken into breadcrumbs is fun for an 8 year old!
  3. Follow the Ellyn Satter approach to a feeding relationship: as parents your job is to decide what you serve and when. Your child’s job is to decide if they eat, what they eat, and how much. I love this post by my colleague, Crystal Karges, on the topic of trust building with food.
  4. Model balanced eating. The best way to inspire children to develop a varied appetite is to eat a wide variety of foods in front of them! You don’t have to talk about it or make it “a thing.” Just live your life, eating everything from oatmeal to broccoli to cookies.
  5. Steer clear of pressure and the “2 more bites” approach.Pressuring your child to eat certain types of foods often backfires and begins to imprint a “good food, bad food” list in their head. They begin to realize “wow, zucchini must really suck if Mom is working THIS hard to get me to eat it!”
  6. No need to teach children or young kids about nutrition. I know that may surprise you! But concepts like vitamins and protein are way too abstract for kids. We want children connecting to the sensory aspects of eating, helping them connect to their bodies rather than an intellectualized approach to food.
  7. Do your best to avoid lumping food into categories as healthy, unhealthy (or what Kurbo is doing with red foods, yellow foods, green foods), good, bad, etc. This actually makes the “bad” foods MORE appealing and the “good” foods less appealing. And for the more sensitive child, they may feel that they are “bad” if they eat a “bad food” and begin to develop a shame-based identity around eating choices. This can also encourage sneak eating.
  8. Refrain from associating food choices with body size, even in a joking way. You may not be eating ice cream because you want to lose weight (I’m not advocating this, I’m using this as an example. I hope you eat ice cream with your children!) but do not express this to your child. Instead of saying “No ice cream for me, Mom has to get rid of this belly!” say “No thank you, I’m not in the mood for ice cream right now but I appreciate the offer!”
  9. The same goes for exercise. Do not imply to your children that you are exercising to lose weight or make up for what you ate the day before. Instead of saying “Dad had too many brownies last night so needs extra time at the gym!” consider “I had so much fun at my kickboxing class, want to show me your best ninja kick?!”
  10. Do not speak about your appearance or size in a negative way.This can be extremely hard to do and you can absolutely fake it until you make it. Children are sponges and it can feel scary to see what they parrot back to you!
  11. Keep appearance-based comments to a minimum and strive for neutral comments, where possible. As it turns out, compliments can fuel body distress just as much as criticism. Of course you can tell your child that they are handsome, kind, smart, creative, etc. But a child who is constantly told how “tiny” or “beautiful” they are may begin to feel a tremendous amount of pressure to remain that way or develop a limited sense of self. Let them know how happy you are to spend time with them and how interested you are in their thoughts and ideas!
  12. Ask your pediatrician to never discuss your child’s weight in front of them. If they have weight concerns they can discuss it directly with you and privately.
  13. Remember that children gain anywhere from 20-50 pounds during pre-puberty and into puberty. Some children gain weight very quickly and some children gain weight before they have a growth spurt. Body changes during this time are normal and attempts to curb childhood weight gain predict eating disorders and higher BMIs in young adulthood. Dieting, also known as weight suppression, is the most important predictor of accelerated weight gain, weight stigma, weight cycling, and eating disorders.
  14. Focus on cultivating healthy habits for the whole family that have nothing to do with weight. Guiding food or exercise choices to change your child’s weight is most likely going to backfire. Even The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees.
  15. Celebrate body diversity. Some well-intentioned parents will treat the word “fat” like a bad word, instructing their children to never use it. That’s understandable in a culture that acts as if fat is the worst thing a person could be! Instead, try embracing the word fat as a descriptor, like you would short or brown-eyed. That way when your child calls their sibling fat in an attempt to be mean you can say something like, “Emma isn’t actually fat. But there would be nothing wrong with her if she were. In our family we know that bodies come in all sizes and shapes. And we love each other regardless of what our bodies look like.”

If you want to read more about why the Kurbo app is so incredibly harmful, please check out the following:

If you are looking for positive and empowering resources for raising children to develop a healthy relationship to food and bodies, here are some of my favorites!

And in the spirit of activism, please consider signing this petition against the Kurbo app. It will take 30 seconds and could help us create a safer place for all the little kiddos.

And this petition is specifically for professionals. I urge you to sign and share!

Body acceptance is a super challenging idea for nearly everyone. We have been brainwashed daily, since birth, to feel deep shame about our size and appearance. So even considering the idea of body acceptance naturally feels wrong, terrifying, and deeply threatening. This response is quite normal. You may not feel it right now, but I truly believe it is possible to Crack the Code on Body Acceptance, One Teeny Tiny Step at a Time.