Growing up is not an easy time for children nor parents. Children are faced with changes in personality, emotions and behaviors, as well as constant physical changes as their bodies develop and mature; this makes them particularly vulnerable to preoccupations with body shape and weight. Those living in larger bodies might find it particularly difficult to develop strong self-esteem and be in harmony with themselves, as they are more prone to weight bias and stigma. This is why helping your child foster a neutral relationship with food and weight is therefore crucial to their current and long-term well-being.
To better understand harmful attitudes around weight, it is important to get familiar with the following terms:
Weight bias and stigma both exist because of diet culture. They are rampant in schools, health systems and the media. They reflect negative internalized societal attitudes towards people living in larger bodies and impact how people treat and value these individuals.
Impact on children
Weight stigma has a profound impact on children’s emotional and physical health. Children living in larger bodies are at an increased risk of bullying and being discriminated against because of their weight. Indeed, being teased or receiving derogatory remarks because of one’s weight ultimately unfavorably impacts children’s self-esteem and confidence, and increases the risk of exhibiting disordered behaviors, such as extreme dieting and self-induced vomiting (Puhl et al., 2017).
Weight stigma increases the risk of:
- Weight-related teasing
- Bullying and cyber-bullying
- Discrimination and social exclusion
- Physical aggression
- Eating disorders
- Trauma and life-long consequences
As a way of coping, the experience of weight stigma predicts a vicious cycle of disordered eating symptoms, avoidance of physical activity and healthcare utilization. This tends to lead to difficulty managing weight and weight gain, resulting ultimately in more weight stigma by peers. Luckily, you can help as a parent.
Using weight neutral language
Weight is not representative of health. In fact, the association between health and weight is much less significant than we’ve been led to believe. The most comprehensive review pooled data from 26 studies and concluded that “overweight” individuals were living longer than those of ”normal” weight. (McGee 2005), and that the weight associated with the lowest risk of death is considerably above BMI of 25. (Flegal, K, 2013). It is also important to note that weight fluctuates with different stages of life, especially considering that kids gain on average 25 to 30 pounds (6.5 lb/year) in the 4 years of puberty (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014). However, 2 out of 3 girls and 2 out 5 boys are still fearful of gaining weight (Micali, 2013).
Talking about weight in a neutral way acknowledges the multidimensional indicators of health. It helps to decrease your child’s possible feelings of shame and guilt for not fitting the media’s standard of “perfect body”, as well as appreciating what their bodies can do for them.
How to be weight neutral
- Avoid making comments about other people’s body shapes and sizes (including your own)
- Talk about your child or your own body in a non judgmental way
- You’re growing so much!
- It looks like you might need some new clothes given that your body is developing
- Mom’s body is changing because that’s a normal process of aging
- Focus on building a positive body image
- Highlight that your child’s body allows them to walk, breath, dance
- Remove scales and weight loss magazines in view from your home
- Do not discuss weight in relationship to food
- Foster an environment that celebrates all body shapes and sizes
- Use exercising as a way to enjoy movement, rather than using it as a punishment
Fostering a neutral relationship with food
As a parent, you are responsible for choosing and preparing food. Your child, on the other hand, is responsible for determining how much they want to eat. When possible, provide planned and regular access to a wide variety of snacks, fruits and vegetables and desserts. Let them guide their own decisions around food based on what’s available, taste preferences and their own hunger and fullness cues.
This might seem counterintuitive at first but eventually, your child will come to trust that their body cues represent their body’s needs. In fact, children who are restricted from certain foods, especially high-calorie snacks, will tend to eat and binge more on them compared to those who are given frequent access to them (Matheson, 2012).
Ultimately, avoid labelling food as “good” or “bad” as children can tend to internalize these words and then feel shame, guilt or pride when eating them. The following terms are to ban from your vocabulary: Good, Bad, Unhealthy, Clean, Right, Wrong, Allowed, Forbidden, Safe, Addictive, Guilt-free, Junk.
How to be food neutral
- Highlight food’s traits and benefits beyond their numerical units or measures (calories, grams, cups)
- Eating snacks gives you energy throughout the day!
- Having a colorful plate allows you to grow !
- Include a wide variety of food at meals and snacks, including desserts and fun foods !
- Call/name foods by their name
- “Treat”, “cheat meal” → a chocolate bar, a burger and fries
- Practice mindful eating at meal time; explore the taste, texture, mouthfeel of food
- Include non-food related awards; watch a movie, go for a nice walk, bonding time with your child
- Allow your child to eat foods presented in the order they prefer
Remember that children learn best by example. Stay mindful of how you talk about food and your own body in your own house for your child to apply it at school. For more resources about weight and food neutrality, make sure to visit our website and our Instagram (s.0.0.m.a.usa) or Facebook page (Sööma LLC – Virtual Eating Disorder Treatment). If you suspect your child has an eating disorder or showing symptoms of disordered eating, please contact our team at email@example.com or (202) 738-4726.
By: Nesrine Aboulhamid, McGill Dietetics Intern
Sööma est une entreprise bilingue qui fonctionne en anglais et en français. Nous fournissons des articles de blogue, des recettes et des articles de diverses sources qui sont parfois écrits en anglais et parfois en français. Si vous vous sentez incapable d’accéder à un article ou à un sujet spécifique en raison d’une barrière linguistique, veuillez nous contacter à firstname.lastname@example.org et nous serons heureux de traduire le contenu pour vous.
Sööma is a bilingual company that operates in both English and in French. We will provide blog posts, recipes and articles from various sources that are sometimes written in English and sometimes in French. If you feel unable to access a specific article or topic due to a language barrier, please reach out to us at email@example.com and we will be happy to translate the content for you.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2014). Physical Changes During Puberty. Retrieved on November 7th, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/puberty/Pages/Physical-Development-of-School-Age-Children.aspx
- Flegal, K. M., Kit, B. K., Orpana, H., Graubard, B. I., Flegal, K. M., Kit, B. K., Orpana, H., & Graubard, B. I. (2013). Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Jama: Journal of the American Medical Association, 309(1).
- Matheson, E. M., King, D. E., & Everett, C. J. (2012). Healthy lifestyle habits and mortality in overweight and obese individuals. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine : Jabfm, 25(1), 9–15. https://doi.org/10.3122/jabfm.2012.01.110164
- Micali, N., Ploubidis, G., De Stavola, B., Simonoff, E., & Treasure, J. (2014). Frequency and patterns of eating disorder symptoms in early adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 54(5), 574–581. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.10.200
- McGee, Daniel L., “Body Mass Index and Mortality: A Meta-Analysis Based on Person-Level Data from Twenty-Six Observational Studies”, Annals of Epidemiology 15, no. 2 (2005): 87-97
- Pbert, L., Druker, S., Barton, B., Schneider, K. L., Olendzki, B., Gapinski, M. A., Kurtz, S., & Osganian, S. (2016). A school-based program for overweight and obese adolescents: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of School Health, 86(10), 699–708. https://doi.org/10.1111/josh.12428
- Puhl, et al., The Role of Stigma in Weight Loss Maintenance Among U.S. Adults, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2017