How to Help Teens Avoid Diet Culture This Holiday Season

Editor’s note: Katie Hurley, author of “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls,” is a child and adolescent psychotherapist in Los Angeles. She specializes in working with tweens, teens and young adults.


“I have a few spots for anyone who wants to lose 20 pounds by the holidays! No diets, exercises, or food cravings!”

Advertisements for diet and exercise programs like this started popping up in my social media feeds in early October, often accompanied by photos of women pushing shopping carts full of Halloween candy intended for represent the weight they no longer carry with them.

From intermittent fasts to “cheat” days, dietary culture is spreading wildly, and particularly among young women and girls, a population group that could be particularly exposed to social pressures and to misinformation.

The fact that diet culture all over social media is targeting adult women is bad enough, but such posts are also trickling down to tweens and teens. (And let’s be honest, many are aimed directly at young people as well.) It couldn’t come at a worse time: there has been a noticeable increase in eating disorders, especially among teenage girls, since the start of the pandemic.

“My mum is obsessed with (seeing) her Facebook friends losing tons of weight without dieting. Is it even real?” The question came from a teenage girl who later revealed she was considering hiring a fitness coach. health to help her eat “healthier” after watching her mother overhaul her diet.Unfortunately, the coaching she received is part of a brand of multi-level marketing that promotes rapid weight loss through calorie restriction and the purchase of expensive meal replacements.

Is this real? Yes. Is it healthy? Unlikely, especially for a growing teenager.

Later that week, another teenage shopper asked about a clean eating movement she’s following on Pinterest. She had read that a clean, strict vegan diet was better for her and the environment, and assumed that was true because the pinned article took her to a health coaching blog. It seemed legit. However, a thorough analysis of the blogger’s references showed that the healthy eating practices they shared were not actually developed by a nutritionist.

And another teenager, fresh off a week of participating in the ‘what I eat in a day’ challenge – a trending video on TikTok, Instagram and other social media platforms where users document the food they eat. in a particular time frame – told me she decided to temporarily deactivate her social media accounts. Why? Because the time she had spent limiting herself to eating while pretending to feel full had left her exhausted and unhappy. She had found the trend on TikTok and thought it might help her create healthier eating habits, but ended up focusing on calorie intake instead. Still, she didn’t want her friends to see that the challenge made her feel bad when she had spent an entire week promoting it.

In any given week, I answer many questions from teens and teens about the food culture they encounter online, around the world, and sometimes even at home. But as we enter the winter holiday season, the pressure from the shame-based food culture, often shrouded in toxic positivity to appear encouraging, is mounting.

“As we approach the holidays, diet culture is in the air as much as lights and music, and it’s definitely on social media,” said Dr. Hina Talib, adolescent medicine specialist and professor. Fellow in Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. in the Bronx, New York. “It’s so pervasive that even though it’s not aimed at teenagers, they absorb it scrolling through it or hearing parents talk about it.”

Social media isn’t the only place young people face damaging messages about body image and weight loss. Teenagers are inundated with so-called “healthy eating” content on television and in popular culture, at school and when participating in after-school or social activities, at home and in public spaces like shopping malls or grocery stores – and even in restaurants.

Instead of learning to eat to fuel their bodies and brains, today’s teens are being told that “eating healthy,” to give just one example of a potentially problematic eating trend, results in a better body – and, by extension, increased Happiness. Diets that eliminate all carbohydrates, dairy, gluten, and meat-based proteins are popular among teens. Yet this mindset can trigger food anxiety, obsessive checking of food labels, and dangerous calorie restriction.

An obsessive focus on losing weight, toning muscles, and improving overall appearance actually runs counter to what teens need to grow at a healthy rate.

“Teens and tweens are growing into their adult bodies, and that growth requires weight gain,” said Oona Hanson, a Los Angeles-based parenting coach. “Weight gain is not only normal but essential for health during adolescence.”

The good news in all of this is that parents can take an active role in helping teens build an emotionally healthier narrative around their eating habits. “Parents often feel powerless in the face of TikTokers, peer pressure, or the larger food culture, but it’s important to remember this: Parents are influencers, too,” Hanson said. What we say and do matters to our teens.

Parents can take an active role in helping teens build an emotionally healthier narrative around their eating habits.

Take a few moments to reflect on your own eating habits. Teenagers tend to imitate what they see, even if they don’t talk about it.

Parents and caregivers can model a healthy relationship with food by enjoying a wide variety of foods and trying new recipes for family meals. During the holiday season, when many celebrations can involve gathering around the table, take the opportunity to create shared bonds. “The holidays are a great time to remember that food nourishes us in ways that could never be captured on a nutrition label,” Hanson said.

The holiday season is full of opportunities to get together with friends and loved ones to celebrate and make memories, but those times can be anxiety-inducing when nutrition shame occurs.

When extended families get together for the holidays, it’s common for people to comment on how others have looked or changed since the last gathering. Although it’s usually done with good intentions, it can be awkward or upsetting for tweens and teens.

“For young people going through puberty or body changes, it’s normal to be embarrassed or self-critical. Having someone say ‘you developed’ is not a welcome part of conversations,” Talib warned.

Talib suggests practicing comebacks and topic changes beforehand. Role-playing responses such as “We’re not talking about bodies” or “We’d rather focus on all the things we’ve accomplished this year.” And be sure to check in and make room for your tween or teen to share their feelings of pain and resentment over such comments at the appropriate time.

Open and honest communication is always the go-to for helping tweens and teens overcome internalized messages and behaviors. When families talk about what they see and hear online, on podcasts, on TV, and in print, they normalize the process of engaging in critical thinking — and that can be a really good bond shared between parents. and teenagers.

“Teaching media literacy skills is a helpful way to frame the conversation,” says Talib. “Talk about it openly.”

She suggests asking the following questions when discussing people’s messages about food culture:

● Who are they?

● What do you think is their angle?

● What do you think is their message?

● Is it a medical professional or trying to sell you something?

● Are they promoting a fitness program or supplement that they market?

Talking to tweens and teens about this throughout the season – and at any time – puts a taboo subject front and center and makes it easier for your kids to share their inner thoughts with you.


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