Why Diets Don’t Work: The End of Diet Culture

It’s no secret that the issue of childhood obesity is a growing problem. Data from the National Survey of Children’s Health from 2020-2021 showed that more than 1 in 6 children in the United States is obese. Most people’s automatic reaction to addressing overweight is to suggest a diet, and sadly this has largely been the response to childhood obesity. Unfortunately, dieting has consistently been proven to be largely ineffective at achieving healthy weight in both children and adults. 

Children are particularly vulnerable to the more insidious effects of dieting. Dieting often comes with immersion into the complex and harmful world of diet culture which results in the risk of both physical and mental health harm.

Though most parents who put their children on diets do so with the best intentions, it’s important to focus on the realistic result that usually occurs to determine if this is truly a wise decision. 

The current medical consensus is that children should not be placed on diets, whether or not they’re overweight for their age. Since children are still growing, it’s a far safer option to encourage healthy lifestyle habits and allow them to naturally grow into their weight.

Understanding Diet Culture

To understand why diets are mentally harmful for children, it’s first essential to understand diet culture itself. Diet culture is the culturally pervasive belief that human value is dependent on being thin, and this can lead to extreme behaviors to achieve this status. 

This subtle message is everywhere and even young children are very quick to pick up on it. From the homogeneous thin body types seen in movies to the cover of grocery store magazines with articles like “how to lose 10 pounds fast”; the message that “thin is in” is pervasive.

This is harmful for a number of reasons. It teaches children that their value is external rather than internal which will leave them with low self esteem later in life. It also teaches them that thinness should always be sought after, even at the cost of physical and mental health.

These messages are completely missing the entire issue of childhood obesity. The bottom line is that childhood obesity increases children’s risk of developing metabolic illnesses and can therefore harm their health. The solution is to improve children’s health rather than add self-harming behaviors on top of childhood obesity to chase after the superficial measure of numbers on a scale.

Finding The Way Forward

So if diet culture is harmful and diets don’t work, you may be wondering what tools this leaves us with to address the issue of childhood overweight and obesity. The answer is simple: healthy lifestyle behavioral changes.

Instead of arbitrarily restricting a child’s food intake according to whatever diet trend is being touted as the latest tool, teaching them to nourish themselves well, listen to their fullness cues, develop a balanced relationship with food and enjoy regular movement through play will allow their health to flourish. 

There’s no overnight “quick fix” to addressing weight management in children. It takes patience, skill, and often the help of a professional to navigate this tricky terrain without inadvertently causing harm. No one achieves this perfectly, but simply the fact that you’ve read this article is a great sign you’re headed in the right direction.

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