Stop feeding diet culture

Serving up healthy attitudes for our children

 By Crystal Murray

Recently I talked with a couple friends about a diet plan one of them was following. One had lost a few pounds and said she really didn’t have trouble keeping to the plan. There were lots of recipes, she never felt hungry, and she liked the results. 

The other friend piped up that she would be interested in trying but she was careful not to engage in any disordered eating, which could impact her teenage daughters. Her statement lingered with me and even stung a bit as I thought about my own eating behaviour. Are they disordered? Has my relationship with food had an impact on my children? 

Good Food vs. Bad Food

I’ve long tried to be conscious about what I eat. That’s because I was diagnosed with Celiac disease about seven years ago, but also a general part of my effort to be what I considered to be fit and healthy. 

One of my sons has Type 1 diabetes. When he was diagnosed at the age of three, it piqued my interest in nutrition and the way our bodies respond to different foods. I also became vigilant about foods that I labelled as either good or bad, as they related to stabilizing blood sugar. 

My other son, who doesn’t have diabetes, is also studying nutrition at university. He tells me he grew up thinking about foods as good or bad. This had nothing to do with blood sugar control for him. It suggests that even though I have no recollection of openly categorizing food this way, perhaps my kids were getting an unhealthy message. 

I wasn’t restricting my children from having treats, but I did have limits and made sure that they understood what healthy food really was. I thought I was educating my family on good nutrition but was I unintentionally and quietly exposing my children to the toxicity of diet culture and disordered eating?

Diet Culture

It’s almost impossible to escape diet culture. Dr. Cheryl Aubie is a Halifax psychologist who also works with the province’s Eating Disorder Clinic. She believes that our culture venerates diet and weight loss. “It is absolutely true that many people have a disordered approach to eating.” says Aubie.

Disordered eating isn’t an eating disorder diagnosis. Aubie explains that disordered eating is a concept explaining when people are on the verge of unhealthy food attitudes and behaviours. Diet culture that feeds disordered eating suggests that people are worthy based on their body size. It vilifies some ways of eating and celebrates others. 

Dr. Phillip Joy, assistant professor in applied human nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University adds that diet culture limits acceptable bodies to certain types. “This often leads to feelings of inadequacy if your body deviates from these standards,” Joy says.

Aubie says that there is a greater risk for people who have (or are exposed to) unhealthy eating behaviours to develop serious eating disorders. “When fat phobia exists, you are more likely to see problems but if you are mentoring the right behaviours the risks are lower,” she explains.

According to the Canadian Eating Disorders Strategy released in 2019, approximately a million Canadians meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder. Equally concerning is the number of young Canadians engaging in risky dieting behaviour. Eating disorders can develop throughout a child’s development, with or without the modelling of good eating behaviour. 

Joy, who has partnered with Eating Disorders Nova Scotia to study disordered eating in the local LGBTQS+ community. He thinks all children are vulnerable. “The pressure to look a certain way and change the way we eat are very high, especially for young people,” he says. “It’s typically thought that boys are not as vulnerable, but this is not the whole story. There are different pressures for different groups of children and people.”

Why so strict?

“The culture of restricting kid’s foods, treats in general, has become so prevalent,” says Dr. Cheryl Aubie, who has vast knowledge of the impacts of food restriction from her clinical practice. “Kids for the most part eat foods that are good for them and they tend not to overeat these treats if they are not always restricted from them. If you make these types of food less scarce then in most cases the kids, when they have access to them, will not overeat. Categorizing foods as good or bad for you can also get in the way of kids eating for nutrition and there are also a lot of outside influences that determine how young people choose to eat.”

When change is good

Not all changes to eating patterns are cause for concern. Sometimes a health condition requires dietary changes. As a parent, planned weight loss that will have positive implication on health and longevity are many times the catalyst for change—that’s not disordered eating. 

Science has revealed a lot about how nutrition is an important factor in disease prevention, health, and life span.

Barb Brennan, a registered holistic nutritional consultant and owner of Honey and Ginger, a wellness shop with two locations in the HRM that provides nutritional counselling, health supportive foods, supplements and a host of other services for healthy body and mind, says that it’s important to remember that no one diet fits everyone.

“I live and work in a world where people are in and out of our business looking for advice for all types of diets. It’s all about finding what is best for you,” says Brennan. “For example, we might have a client that is following the keto diet. For them they just feel better and they think clearer. A lot of people want quick result to lose weight. We caution people that what is good today has to be good in the long term and what it all comes down to is balance and focusing on real food.”

“When you are making changes for health reasons talk about this with your children,” says Aubie. “This is also an opportunity for the family to make these healthy choices together. It’s also is easier when you are preparing the same meal so that when everyone sits down to eat together it doesn’t draw as much attention to the person that is eating the different meal.

From a nutritional perspective, communication is key and allows your kids to ask questions and be curious about healthy eating guidelines. 

“I would recommend people to follow Canada’s Food Guide as an approach to wellness and longevity,” adds Joy. “You have to be careful to ensure your sources of information come from credible sources when it comes to nutrition. These approaches would be to eat a varied and balanced diet with an emphasis on eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain food and protein foods that come from plants more often. Limit highly processed foods and if you choose these foods, eat them less often.”

Government updated the guide in 2019, based on the latest research. “Until recently, a lot of people in the nutrition world were not happy with Canada’s Food Guide but the new guide is a much more realistic vision and more on track for wellness than before,” says Brennan. “We also have to remember that nutrition and wellness is not just what we eat. It’s what we breath, what we put on our skin and how we cope with stress.”

Diet culture and disordered eating are rooted in self-worth. Brennan encourages people to seek more positivity.

“All food has energy,” she explains. “Fresh local food is best for this. There are a lot of people who have never made a trip to their local farmers’ market. There is something that happens when you hand pick your vegetables, or you pick up fresh eggs. There is a good energy in this, and people benefit from that.”

Shifting away from diet culture takes a change of mindset. “There is an important mental health component here,” says Brennan. “I think trying different ways of eating can be a healthy thing to explore, especially if you are trying to find the right food for what your own body needs. A change in diet can open up opportunities to try new foods but in the end it all comes down to balance.”

Bigstock / Yuliasis

Reduce the risk of disordered eating

  • One of the best tools is eating together as a family. When kids grab a plate and go to their room you don’t know what is happening with their food.
  • Try not to comment on weight or body size. 
  • Mentor through your own eating practices by eating according to Canada’s Food Guide recommendations. Also, mentor through cooking more often and together, exploring different foods, eating and enjoying together.

When you eat with others, it’s important to remember to: 

  • Take your time and be with each other 
  • Put away distractions like the TV or electronics.
  • Talk to those around you and share what is going on in everyone’s life.

Read the full Spring 2021 issue of Our Children for free.

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