How to help teens can 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 work with tweens, teens and young adults.
“I have a couple of spots for anyone who wants to lose 20 pounds by the holidays! No diets, exercise, or cravings!”
Ads for dieting and exercise programs like this started appearing in my social media feeds in early October, often accompanied by photos of women pushing shopping carts full of Halloween candy intended to represent the weight they no longer carry with them.
Whether it’s intermittent fasting or “cheat” days, diet culture is spreading wildly, and spiking in particular among young women and girls, a population group who might be at particular risk of social pressures and misinformation.
The fact that diet culture all over social media targets grown women is bad enough, but such messaging also trickles down to tweens and teens. (And let’s be honest, a lot is aimed directly at young people too.) It couldn’t happen at a worse time: There’s been a noticeable spike in eating disorders, particularly among adolescent girls, since the beginning of the pandemic.
“My mom is obsessed with (seeing) her Facebook friends losing tons of weight without dieting. Is this even real?” The question came from a teen girl who later revealed she was considering hiring a health coach to help her eat ‘healthier’ after watching her mom overhaul her diet. Sadly, the coaching she was falling victim to is part of a multilevel marketing brand that promotes quick weight loss through caloric restriction and buying costly meal replacements.
Is it real? Yes. Is it healthy? Not likely, especially for a growing teen.
Later that week, a different teen client asked about a clean eating movement she follows on Pinterest. She had read that a strict clean vegan diet is better for both her and the environment, and assumed this was true because the pinned article took her to a health coaching blog. It seemed legitimate. But a deep dive into the blogger’s credentials, however, showed that the clean eating practices they shared were not actually developed by a nutritionist.
And another teen, fresh off a week of engaging in the “what I eat in a day” challenge — a video trend across TikTok, Instagram and other social media platforms where users document the food they consume in a particular timeframe — told me she decided to temporarily mute her social media accounts. Why? Because the time she’d spent limited her eating while pretending to feel full 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 becoming fixated on caloric intake instead. Still, she didn’t want her friends to see that the challenge actually made her feel terrible when she had spent a whole week promoting it.
During any given week, I field numerous questions from tweens and teens about the diet culture they encounter online, out in the world, and sometimes even in their own homes. But as we enter the winter holiday season, shame-based diet culture pressure, often wrapped up with toxic positivity to appear encouraging, increases.
“As we approach the holidays, diet culture is in the air as much as lights and music, and it’s certainly on social media,” said Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist and associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, New York. “It’s so pervasive that even if it’s not targeted (at) teens, they are absorbing it by scrolling through it or hearing parents talk about it.”
Social media isn’t the only place young people encounter harmful messaging about body image and weight loss. Teens are inundated with so-called ‘healthy eating’ content on TV and in popular culture, at school and while engaged in extracurricular or social activities, at home and in public spaces like malls or grocery stores — and even in restaurants.
Instead of learning how to eat to fuel their bodies and their brains, today’s teens are getting the message that “clean eating,” to give just one example of a potentially problematic dietary trend, results in a better body — and, by extension, increased happiness. Diets cutting out all carbohydrates, dairy products, 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 weight loss, toning muscles and improving overall looks actually runs contrary to what teens need to grow at a healthy pace.
“Teens and tweens are growing into their adult bodies, and that growth requires weight gain,” said Oona Hanson, a parent coach based in Los Angeles. “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 craft an emotionally healthier narrative around their eating habits. “Parents are often made to feel helpless in the face of TikTokers, peer pressure or wider diet culture, but it’s important to remember this: parents are influencers, too,” said Hanson. What we say and do matters to our teens.
Take a few moments to reflect on your own eating patterns. Teens tend to emulate 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 model shared connections. “Holidays are a great time to remember that foods nourish us in ways that could never be captured on a nutrition label,” Hanson said.
The holiday season is full of opportunities to gather with friends and loved ones to celebrate and make memories, but these moments can be anxiety-producing when nutrition shaming occurs.
When extended families gather for holiday celebrations, it’s common for people to comment on how others look or have changed since the last gathering. While this is usually done with good intentions, it can be awkward or upsetting to tweens and teens.
“For young people going through puberty or body changes, it’s normal to be self-conscious or self-critical. To have someone say, ‘you’ve developed’ isn’t a welcome part of conversations,” cautioned Talib.
Talib suggests practicing comebacks and topic changes ahead of time. Role play responses like, “We don’t talk about bodies,” or “We prefer to focus on all the things we’ve accomplished this year.” And be sure to check in and make space for your tween or teen to share and feelings of hurt and resentment over any such comments at an appropriate time.
Open and honest communication is always the gold standard in helping tweens and teens work through the messaging and behaviors they internalize. 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 it can be a really great shared connection between parents and teens.
“Teaching media literacy skills is a helpful way to frame the conversation,” says Talib. “Talk openly about it.”
She suggests asking the following questions when discussing people’s messaging around diet culture:
● Who are they?
● What do you think their angle is?
● What do you think their message is?
● Are they a medical professional or are they trying to sell you something?
● Are they promoting a fitness program or a supplement that they are marketing?
Talking to tweens and teens about this throughout the season — and at any time — brings a taboo topic to the forefront and makes it easier for your kids to share their inner thoughts with you.