9 Reasons Your Daughter Doesn\’t Need a Diet


Should I Put My Daughter on a Diet? Learn 9 Reasons Not To (Says Science!)

For the first five years of my career as a dietitian, kids in larger bodies would be get referred to me daily for nutrition counseling. Most often, it was at a pediatrician\’s or pediatric endocrinologist’s recommendation. Always, it is with the frank assumption on both the parent’s and pediatrician’s part that would help their child get “healthier” by teaching them how to lose—or stop gaining—weight.

The problem: I was rarely (if ever) on board with that recommendation.

As a woman who’d been dieting since middle school, I knew all too well that monitoring calories and restricting food intake is emotionally taxing, physically dangerous, and socially debilitating.

As an adult and now a mother myself, I’d been working hard to rebuild a positive relationship with food and my body and to model that for my daughters—regardless of their body shape or BMI.

Pushing the painful agenda of a diet on a child, particularly one who already had a fraught relationship with food and physical activity (which so many kids do regardless of the size or shape of their body) felt morally and ethically wrong.

Professionally, I had a lot to grapple with. Wasn’t helping kids get to a “normal” BMI my job as a pediatric nutritionist? Wasn’t teaching kids how to eat “healthy” to reverse weight gain the best way to help them avoid scary-sounding problems like diabetes, heart disease, insulin resistance, and depression?

No, it wasn’t. Helping a child lose weight via a diet is a harmful, no-good, very bad thing. Despite it being in complete contradiction to popular medical opinion as well as the deepest wishes of the parents who came to see me, I have come to the firm conclusion that I cannot get by an agenda of dieting for kids—and I am prepared to deal with the consequences whatever they may be.

If you’re wondering how I can be so sure, or you want the evidence to help convince a concerned family member How can I be so sure?

Should I Put My Daughter On a Diet?

As a pediatric dietitian, my answer is a firm NO. Even with all of those scary-sounding risk factors and the possibility of weight-based teasing, peer pressure, or stigma in mind.

Dieting—at its best—is an ineffective solution for weight loss. Research shows that 95 to 98 percent of weight-loss diets fail to result in actual loss. And of the small percentage who are successful, that loss is rarely maintained over the long term.

At its worst, dieting is harmful and even dangerous. When adolescents diet, their risk of developing an eating disorder is five times higher.

For those who diet in more “extreme” ways such as skipping meals and severely restricting calories the risk is 18 times higher, according to results from the same study.

Additionally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that of those young dieters who are lucky enough to escape the fate of developing a serious ED, a significant number end up with a disordered and dysfunctional relationship food that lasts years if not decades.

Just like long-term, low-grade depression (ie dysthymia) is debilitating, the long-term, low-grade disordered eating that occurs due to a sort of accepted type of body unhappiness among women (known as “normative discontent”) is also a chronic and insidious condition.

Many of my clients, for example, have lingering doubts and conflicts about their eating choices and behaviors even when they’re no longer on a diet, which steals joy and creates stress with each and every meal and snack.

So glad you asked! Let’s get into the specifics of why we want to avoid putting our children on a diet.

The nine research-backed reasons to drop a weight-loss agenda with kids refer both to overt weight-loss diets (such as keto or low-carb diet, intermittent fasting, etc).

They also refer to the more subtle ways we try to manage calories in and out such as pushing lots of vegetables, limiting quantities, and warning kids that certain foods are off-limits or unhealthy).

If you’re curious about the reasons why so many pediatric dietitians and even The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding putting kids on diets, here are some facts to consider:

9 Super-Compelling Reasons Girls Don’t Need Diets

  1. Dieting and pursuing weight loss are risk factors for developing disordered eating in children, as well as full-blown eating disorders.

  2. Food restriction—either limiting amounts of foods or limiting access to desirable foods, which is a common tactic used to help with weight loss, has negative impacts on eating such as binging, sneaking food, and eating in the absence of hunger.

  3. Food restriction is also linked to a disruption of internal regulation—a child’s natural ability to eat the right amount of food for her body—and weight gain kids.

  4. Children, particularly younger children, have high nutrient needs for growth and proper development; limiting and restricting food has the potential to cause a decrease in a child’s intake of vital nutrients which can negatively impact their growth and development

  5. Focusing on weight loss promotes unhealthy and disordered eating habits such as skipping meals, choosing foods based on calories instead of specific nutrients or enjoyment, and pursuing extreme and excessive exercise which often cannot be sustained over the long term and can feel like punishment as opposed to joyful and empowering.

  6. Recommending weight loss triggers and even reinforces weight stigma, which is associated with increased weight gain, which (again) can worsen the very problem it is intending to treat. Weight stigma contributes to behaviors such as avoiding taking kids to doctor visits (and avoiding wanting to go on the part of the child), decreases in physical activity (due to feeling self-conscious about body shape and size), binge eating, and a lower quality of life particularly in kids.

  7. Focusing on weight loss and a number on the scale tends to undermine a child’s ability to make positive changes—such as being physically active, eating in a way that is satisfying and enjoyable, eating at regular intervals, etc—that are proven to improve markers of health such blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and self-esteem. For example, kids who are trying to lose weight often use extreme measures such as skipping meals or cutting out entire nutrients (such as carbs), which can be harder on blood sugar than eating regularly.  

  8. When we support our child in an effort to lose weight, we reinforce the idea that they are not acceptable as they are and waste precious time that we could be used to actively boost self-esteem and help them learn to accept themselves and their weight, which is a part of themselves that is unlikely to change—particularly if they pursue dieting or weight loss.

  9. Similarly to adults, attempts at weight loss in children more often result in weight gain, causing the very outcome that the diet is promising to reverse. To be clear, weight gain isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. The bad thing is using an ineffective, harmful “treatment” on a child.

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