This week Weight Watchers (rebranded WW) announced an app for kids and I’ve been watching some of my colleagues and other professionals speak about the impact of such a tool. The app is called Kurbo and is part of WW’s campaign to get away from the word “diet” and move towards a “lifestyle change”. We are going to discuss the impact of dieting on kids. While most companies or programs (Noom, WW, Keto, Paleo, etc.) wouldn’t admit it, this is largely due to the fact that science has come forward showing that diets are not successful and cause harm to both physical and mental health. A 2000 study showed that less than 5% of people were able to maintain a weight loss long term. Another study in 2015 showed that 95-98% people who lost weight on a diet gained it all back (and often more).
Studies have shown higher instances of depression, eating disorders, and impaired social lives in people on diets, as well. In fact, there was a study in which men in their peak physical health were put on a 1400 calorie a day diet. Many of them developed depression, anxiety, irritability, or an eating disorder and became food-obsessed, talking about a little less when they were together (Keyes, 1958). When they were not restricting their food, they went back to their baseline. Additionally, weight cycling (gaining and losing weight over and over) has some nasty effects including an increased risk in hypertension, chronic inflammation, and overall mortality. Pair this with fat-shaming or weight stigma (people bullying or making nasty comments on someone else’s body size) and we see increased risks for mental illness, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. The short version of the story is that we’re starting to doubt that being overweight is as dangerous as weight-cycling and being judged for your weight.
Pertaining to children, studies consistently show that 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. In 2015, Weight Watchers allowed children as young as 10 to join its program. Jenny Craig’s age cutoff was 13, and Nutrisystem’s was 14 years old, read more here. Of course, those are only official rules from these diet industry giants. Sadly, it is often parents who register their child for these programs with good intentions but horrible results for their child’s long-term emotional and mental health.
Here are 4 reasons that putting children on a diet is not a good idea (more directly, a bad idea):
- It sets them up for failure as studies show that long term weight loss attained by dieting isn’t very likely (if you doctor told you that a medication had a 5% chance of working, is that what you’ want to take?)
- It can lead to weight-cycling later, which often happens because diets work short term but then 95-98% of people put the weight (or more) back on after stopping.
- Early dieting may put a child on a path to develop an eating disorder. The “morality” based system that WW and other “lifestyle programs” teach leads to the internalization that consuming “bad foods” leads to being a “bad”, “unlovable”, unattractive”, or “failure” as a person.
- Perhaps most importantly, it creates mental and emotional strain for these little people. Their desire to diet and manipulate or punish their bodies creates negative self-thought patterns that result in long term difficulties with self-worth.
What is a better way?
Many parents (and adults concerned for themselves, for that matter) encourage their children to diet (or “watch their diet”- many people have developed eating disorders by trying to eat for health and finding that it’s a slippery slope when you’re counting grams and calories) because it is touted as the best way to manage your health even though we’re now seeing studies that suggest it’s actually dangerous and ineffective. We’ve spent a lot of time as a nation knowing that being in a larger body gets you bullied and the easiest way to combat that is to “just lose some weight- eat more veggies!” but it turns out that’s garbage.
People have a natural set point (a weight their body functions optimally at) and we have no control over what that set point is. This is at the core of why diets fail; when you’re restricting and fall below your set point, your body has a LOT of mechanisms to make further weight loss impossible and to promote weight gain. It thinks it’s starving and is trying to save you! It’s usually a journey rife with personal growth and learning to reprogram your beliefs about food and yourself, but Intuitive Eating is something more and more professionals (therapists and nutritionists/dietitians alike) are turning to for answers. For more information on the science behind why diets fail, check out the book, Big Fat Lies by David Gillespie. It is truly eye-opening.
In the mid-nineties, authors Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole put out a model to address our relationship food that was ground-breaking, and shockingly simple. Their non-dieting approach is revolutionary and research-based. They call their model, “intuitive eating” and we highly encourage you to check out their books as a step-by-step guide for learning about and incorporating this new system into your way of looking at, relating to, and eating food.
The intuitive eating model is based on 10 principles for breaking free from the dieting cycle and feeling at peace with food rather than driving ourselves mad trying to control it.
These are the intuitive eating “rules” (for all of you that need rules in your life; we prefer to call them guidelines).
Ditch the diet culture- recognize that diets don’t work and that’s not your fault. Stop believing that you’re just not trying hard enough or good enough. Give up on dieting. If you hold out hope that you can still diet to “fix your life”, your body can still be held up in starvation mode. This often comes with some grief work. It means acknowledging that your body (likely your family history and even your dieting history- the more we weight cycle, the higher our set point goes.) may never be your ideal. But it will be healthier. For help with this, look to podcasts like Love, Food and How to Love your Body or body-positive (not the body-positive accounts that only showcase one type of body) Instagram accounts.
Honor your hunger- get in the practice of noticing what it feels like to be hungry, really hungry, full, and stuffed. Intuitive Eating uses a 1-10 scale. If you eat to a “7” (best described as full but not at all unpleasant), how long before you get hungry again? At what number do you start thinking about food? And, please, stop saying “I can’t be hungry, I just ate”. Your body processes and balances nutrition over a week or so, not just one day. Your body is smarter than you and has to account for a lot of factors (how were the nutritents you ate absorbed? What got used? What hormonal work is your body doing, etc) in balancing how much you need. Stop skipping meals because you ate more than you thought appropriate at the last meal. If you’re hungry, eat.
Make peace with food- recognize that food is not moral. You are not “so bad” for having a brownie or “good” for having Kale. Stop letting your programming tell you that you’re inferior or superior based on food choices and that some foods are bad. All foods are allowed. Often, the more we restrict a food, the more we overeat it later. In fact, intuitive eaters will often say “if you’re still bingeing, you’re still restricting”. Once we allow all foods, we don’t obsess. Many people going from disordered eating and/or dieting to Inuitive Eating worry they’ll want nothing but Oreos or ice cream all the time but in reality, that gets old pretty quick. You will eventually crave veggies if you allow in all foods, I promise.
Challenge the food police. Many of us have a little voice that says “Kayla, cookies are high in fat and carbs, do you really need one?”. Tell that voice to go away. Cookies (and any food that they deem off-limits) have value and it’s perfectly natural to want them. Notice how you feel rather than blocking out your internal signals by being stuck in the loop of “I’m so bad for this but I want it”.
Feel your fullness- Get to know what full feels like and what you like/don’t like about it. When you tune in, you’re much more likely to be satisfied with what you eat rather than eating on autopilot and walking away too full or unsatisfied.
Discover the satisfaction factor- we should get some enjoyment from our food. Allow yourself to eat things you get satisfaction from. You’ll likely eat according to your body’s own cues rather than overeating.
Honor your feelings without using food- if you stress eat, this is your cue to find some new coping skills. When I started this work I often found that I ate to “stuffed” or a “9” in the evening because my perfectionism made me feel like I was performing all day and my evening meal was the only place I could drop that be free. Emotional eating is OK. It’s natural. There’s a reason we bring food to parties and memorials. But it isn’t a good enough tool to be your only coping skill. The blog post here on the site about self-soothing is a good place to start if you’re looking for more satisfying skills.
Respect your body- stop talking badly about it! Appreciate what it can do for you and what you like about it.
Add movement- move your body in a way that feels good rather than having your exercise covered in shame about what will happen if you don’t exercise.
Honor your health- find health professionals that listen and attend your appointments. Additionally, if you’re lactose intolerant or have celiac disease, eating some things don’t feel good. That doesn’t mean you can never have it but we feel best when we pay attention to our bodies. The same thing goes if you have diabetes. The key here is to remove shame. Eat what feels good for you. One last note about the 10th principle: for those of us stuck in eating disorders or diet mentality, our little voice of doubt says “but the best way to honor your health is to lose weight!”. If you’re putting yourself through this torture for your health, I’d strongly encourage you to look at Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. Weight is not the best determinate of your health.
Intuitive Eating is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as an “all you can eat” model. This is often a fear-based reaction from people who have convinced themselves that dieting is the only way to happiness and self-acceptance. Intuitive eating is about being curious and eating without shame attached. For many of us, our inner cues have become quite fogged based on our food rules, cultural messages about thinness, and our family’s history with dieting and body image. If you’ve read the 10 principles and recognize some of the disordered thinking in yourself, please do the work to prevent handing it down to your kids. An awesome book that gives you practical tools is Secrets of Feeding a Health Family by Ellyn Satter.
When we listen to our bodies, we eat what we need. There are studies supporting this as well but I’m trying to give a general guide. When practicing intuitive eating, we’re really getting good at removing the mental jabber and eating until we’re content. Shockingly simple, right?!
If you need some help processing and applying any of this information, please reach out for help with a therapist who is versed in this research and practices a body positive and self-acceptance model of therapy. Breaking the diet cycle takes a lot of mental and emotional work, but it can be the “sane” choice.
If you’re struggling with disordered eating, please reach out.
You are so much more than the food on your plate or the numbers associated with your body.
Take care, friends, and be well!
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.