Dietician warns parents about the lifelong dangers of discussing dieting around kids: ‘Want to talk about a real serial killer?’

Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of eating disorders and disordered eating. Please take care while reading, and note the helpful resources at the end of this story.

A registered dietician is warning parents that kids are always listening and that what they overhear can have a lifelong impact on their body image, relationship with food and even their life expectancy.

Abbey Sharp (@abbeyskitchen), a self-described “wellness culture BS-busting dietician,” gained nearly 40,000 views after she posted her warning to TikTok.

Sharp filmed her video as a response to the prompt, “Stitch this with a fact so ridiculous, you didn’t believe it until you looked it up yourself.”

Sharp wasted no time diving in with some chilling data. “Want to talk about a real serial killer? Children ages 5 to 6 will choose an ideal body type that is smaller than their perceived body type.”

She continued, “By age 6, children are aware of the concept of dieting, and many have tried it. By age 7, one in four [children] have engaged in dieting behavior.”

Sharp went on to explain that dieting is one of the greatest predictors of disordered eating and eating disorders — and of those disorders, anorexia has the highest mortality rate. 

“So if you think it’s totally benign for you to be talking about your keto diet or your ‘fat thighs’ in front of your children because they’re ‘so young,’ they’re not,” said Sharp. “They’re listening, they trust us, they look up to us, and we need to teach them that they can love their bodies no matter what the size or shape.”

‘Children are soaking up everything around them…’

According to neuropsychologist and Forbes Health Advisory Board member Judy Ho, PhD, Sharp’s video and her terrifying statistics are, unfortunately, right on the money.

This video may be shocking, but these stats are absolutely correct in terms of the deleterious effects of dieting and the slippery slope to eating disorders, other comorbid conditions and early mortality,” explained Ho.

Children are soaking up everything around them, not just [from] social media, but [from] what their parents and family members say and do, and how they talk about [their] relationships with food and body image.”

According to Ho, we might assume it’s the teen years wherein kids begin to form their views on body image, food and health — but from a very young age, parents can begin to positively shape these perspectives.

To do so, Ho recommends the following:

  1. Emphasize the role of food in providing us with nutrients and keeping us healthy. 
  2. Make mealtime a positive experience, cook and prep with your kids, ask them what foods they are interested in trying, don’t have any “bad” foods that are always off limits and teach moderation. 
  3. Refrain from commenting on people’s body sizes, including your children’s.
  4. Refrain from negative talk about your own body size, especially in front of your children.
  5. Develop a healthy relationship with food yourself if you struggle with dieting and eating disorders, and seek professional help if necessary.
  6. Help combat negative messaging and social media comparisons by limiting your child’s exposure to such information and talking to them directly about it so that you have a chance to impart your own lessons for them. 
  7. Comment positively on what their body can do (“Way to run!” or “That’s so great, you’re so strong!”) rather than how their body looks (“You look so much nicer in that dress now that you lost some weight!”). 
  8. Prioritize doctor’s appointments to keep their bodies healthy, and choose doctors who will also take care in discussing such issues with your child so that you have a helping hand and an authoritative voice outside of yourself that your child can rely on.

As Ho recommends, when it comes to making doctor’s appointments, it’s important to choose medical professionals who share the same positive messaging on health and body image.

It is very important that parents provide positive messaging for their children and employ healthy habits, such as the importance of exercising and sport activity, portion control and positive body perception,” says Robert Dracker, MD and Forbes Health Advisory Board member.

Learning to speak kindly and positively about our bodies, and to value health above appearances, will benefit not only future generations but also ourselves. And considering how stressful and difficult life can be, couldn’t we all use a little more kindness and self-love?

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the NEDA website to learn more about the possible warning signs of eating disorders and disordered eating.

If you found this story insightful, read about why it’s important we start normalizing postpartum bodies.

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