Diet Culture: How it’s Harmful to Kids and What Educators can do to Help

Diet culture sucks - blog post cover

Written by: Raschelle Sabourin, Registered Dietitian

Reviewed by: Nüton’s Registered Dietitians

Diet culture shows up in sneaky ways for kids in schools and childcare centres. Recognizing diet culture and spreading awareness helps protect kids from the harmful effects.

What is Diet Culture? 

Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian, defines diet culture as a system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue
  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others e.g., clean eating
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status
  • Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health”

You likely grew up with diet culture messages all around you without even realizing it. Perhaps you heard your family members regularly talking about the most recent diet they were following. For some, you may have unfortunately been bullied due to your body size as a kid or told to lose weight by your doctor.

Other places that you may notice diet culture are:

  • Magazines at the grocery store
  • Conversations between colleagues at work
  • Your favourite radio stations
  • In your doctor’s office

What Diet Culture can Look/Sound Like:

– Emphasizing weight in nutrition education, weighing kids, or judging someone’s health based on their weight, shape or size

– Labelling foods as “good” or “bad” (learn more in our post about food neutrality)

– Asking kids to record their food intake

– Weighing kids (outside of there being a medical need to do so and even then, kids do not need to know how much they weigh)

– Comments on kids’ weight from classmates or adults

– Comments made on kids food choices or foods sent from home

– Notes being sent home about foods allowed (or not allowed)

– Kids being afraid or embarrassed to eat foods sent from home

– Adults discussing diets they are following or foods they are limiting

How Can Diet Culture Affect Kids?

Diet culture shows up in sneaky ways for kids in schools and childcare centres. Ultimately, it sends the message that “your body isn’t good enough” and that “you need to eat healthy foods if you want to be good”. Diet culture can:

  • Increase the risk of eating disorders and disordered eating.4
  • Teach kids to have body image concerns, which can lead to low self-worth, unhappiness and shame
  • Lead to weight-based bullying and weight stigma for kids living in larger bodies.2
Diets don’t work and are harmful for everyone (not just kids). What we do know about diets is that 95% of the time, they fail. Diets are a significant predictor of dangerous weight cycling and disordered eating. Instead of focusing on our internal hunger and fullness cues, diet culture encourages us to focus on eating according to external cues, such as the number of calories needed to lose weight.

4 Tips for Protecting Kids from Diet Culture:

1. Language Matters

Talk about food in a neutral way as much as possible. This means that all foods have the same moral value. No foods are inherently “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy.”

2. Focus on Health Behaviours, Never on Weight

As an educator, the best way to teach kids about food is to explore a variety of foods with them (need activity ideas? Join a Nuton workshop!). Weight is not a behaviour. Take inventory of your activities as ask yourself, “do these focus on health behaviours such as eating regularly, prioritizing sleep, and physical activity that is enjoyable?” Focusing on weight can ultimately increase the risk of eating disorders and decrease those positive health behaviours.

3. Promote a Positive Body Image

Educate kids that each person’s body is different, and we should respect, accept, and celebrate these differences. Teach kids that all bodies are good bodies. Check out Jessie’s Legacy resource called Raising Kids with a Healthy Body Image.

Kids are constantly shown unrealistic images of beauty in the media. Teaching kids how to look at these messages critically can help improve their body image.

4. Address Weight-Based Bullying

Advocate for zero-tolerance policies regarding weight-based bullying in your school or centre, and reinforce it.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Diet culture is so pervasive in our society that it’s hard to detect. We have all been victims of diet culture throughout our lives, but kids are especially susceptible to its harmful effects. The good news is, the more you are aware of diet culture, the more you can help kids develop a positive relationship with food and body.

Nüton’s Free Workshops:

Nüton has created workshops for educators in schools and childcare centres that give an excellent overview of diet culture. Please register for a workshop here.

1. Christy, Harrison. “What Is Diet Culture?”
2. Janssen, I., Craig, W.M., Boyce, W.F. & Pickett, W. (2004). Associations Between Overweight and Obesity With Bullying Behaviours in School-Age Children. Pediatrics, 113(5), 1187-1194.
3. Patton, G.C., Selzer, R., Coffey, C., Carlin, J.B. & Wolfe, R. (1999). Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. British Medical Journal, 318, 765-768.
4. Tribole, Evelyn. Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition. St Martin’s Press, 2020.

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