Deadly dieting

How parental actions play a role in adolescent eating behaviors


Elle Rotter and Madi Michajilczenko

Diet culture can have catastrophic effects on physical and mental well-being. A person’s life can often become overwhelmed with constant measurements and nutrition tracking. Teens involved in diet culture are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders and unhealthy habits.

Disclaimer: This article mentions diet culture, mental illness and eating disorders.

It is as simple as “normal” actions: a teen finishing their plate when they are already full, encouraging a child to eat their vegetables in exchange for candy later, holding off from breakfast and lunch, then eating everything in the kitchen at midnight. Most people would not bat an eye at these actions — after all, everyone knows bribery is the way to a kid’s heart, and “quirky” midnight cravings are a typical part of life . . . until they are not.

At one point or another, almost everyone has to learn one of the most important skills in human development: eating. However, many influences, including parents, socioeconomic status and diet culture, all significantly impact a person’s journey to maintaining healthy eating patterns.

Out of a variety of factors, parental influence has — more than the media, more than their tastes, more than a favorite character on a cereal box — the largest impact on a child’s ability to grow up with intuitive eating skills. Intuitive eating, or the awareness of one’s hunger cues and nutrition needs, is imperative to growing a healthy relationship with food while in adolescence. In addition to eliminating the destructive mindset that some foods are “bad” and some are “good,” intuitive eating focuses on the body’s innate ability to determine which food type is needed at the moment.

Regarding dietary habits, children are more likely to follow the patterns of their parents, which means that when a parent exhibits a certain skill, like having a weekly family barbeque or baking homemade bread, their children are more likely to pick up on those habits as well. While parents serve as important role models for their kids in all areas of life, their influence is especially significant in healthy eating during youth, as these skills can become harder to change later on. Kids look to their parents; when there is a lack of home cooking, there is also a lack of teaching the children how to cook their food. According to KidsHealth, household cooking provides kids with the practice for math, language and reading skills and creates a foundation for healthy eating habits. Activities like these lay the foundation for a positive, intuitive mind-to-stomach connection. Additionally, working with children from a young age to reinforce intuitive eating skills makes them less likely to make destructive eating choices later in life, whether those choices be from parental or outside influence.

Especially in the United States, companies with external influence continuously market unhealthy food to receptive, vulnerable children. Neophobia, or the fear of attempting new things — in this case, foods — also contributes to this issue, resulting in babies and adolescents typically favoring recognizable, starchy and carb-filled foods over unfamiliar foods such as fruits and vegetables with unique tastes and textures. Hence, when a child sees a brightly colored box with familiar foods and a favorite movie character, they are much more likely to choose unhealthy over unfamiliar. This can create an unhealthy relationship with food, leading to eating disorders, obesity and other health issues resulting from lack of nutrition.

Although there are many reasons why eating disorders can develop in the adolescent years, eating habits encouraged throughout childhood can vastly affect adulthood eating habits. After all, almost everyone has heard the common phrase “you have to eat everything on your plate before you can have dessert” from their parents. And while this may seem like a normal part of childhood, even small or normalized phrases like this can morph into much deeper misunderstandings with bodily cues. 

By encouraging children to eat everything on their plates in exchange for sugary treats, parents instill the idea that dessert is a coveted reward. In contrast, more nutritious foods are treated as an unwanted roadblock. This reward system often creates the opposite effect than desired — kids become more likely to reject vegetables in favor of desserts. Rather than learning to satisfy a craving for a specific food at once in a healthy portion, kids may grow up to develop binge eating disorders and a lack of perceived control over their eating habits. When people learn from a young age that all food on a plate must be eaten, they may later experience issues with being unable to detect important fullness cues.

Not only do these parental phrases make nutritional food look bad, but they also force kids to eat everything on their plate in larger proportions regardless of the actual fullness of the child. Parents, while mostly unintentionally, ingrain specific eating behaviors into children from a young age, teaching them to ignore how their body responds to food portions rather than guilting them into eating everything on the plate with phrases like “there are starving children in Africa.” Guilt is a powerful tool, and it should not be used to make children feel bad about their eating habits. Comments like these encourage children to ignore their intuitive eating skills, setting them up for a lifetime of eating disorders and confidence issues.

Binge eating disorders, while less widely recognized as other eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, are incredibly dangerous to emotional and physical well-being. Binge eating disorders are characterized by episodes of uncontrollable eating far past one’s typical capacity for food. These episodes can happen after periods of holding back from eating, creating a cycle of hunger and overeating. Binge eating disorder effects such as mental illness and cardiovascular disease are the exact types of disastrous consequences that can result from parental urges to ignore intuitive eating signals. 

From enticing young kids with a reward system of “good” and “bad” foods to discouraging the utilization of intuitive eating, many parental actions have a real, lasting effect on children not just in their youth but throughout the rest of their lives. All of these factors — guilt, eating disorders and parental control — have a role in the upward trajectory toward serious health problems, including obesity, depression, anxiety and even death; unhealthy eating has consequences outside of just weight gain. With obesity rates on the rise, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that unhealthy eating habits only affect those with outward, visibly-noticeable effects. Poor nutrition habits can often lead to preventable medical conditions like Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and chronic conditions that make it easier to develop certain types of cancers, all without necessarily changing the number on a scale. In one such case, a boy from the United Kingdom — of typical BMI and weight for someone his age — went blind after following an extremely unhealthy diet.

On the other hand, some parents approach food with a diet culture perspective, teaching their children that being skinny is desirable above all else. This can range from family members’ frequent, unnecessary comments on adolescents’ bodies during times of growth to unhealthy discussions of fad dieting around impressionable children. There’s a line between being aware and mindful of healthy eating habits and nitpicking, which parents who subscribe to toxic diet culture often end up crossing.

These parents instill a different belief set into their children, one that can lead to anorexia and bulimia. Teens raised with these beliefs often base their value on a number on a scale rather than personal accomplishments, morality and emotional intelligence. Instead of focusing on self-worth and growth, these teens fall into disordered habits such as spending excessive amounts of time at the gym, eating less food and tracking every fluctuation in weight. To outsiders, these habits may look like those of a healthy, bodily-aware person, but in actuality, this constant state of strict self-monitoring causes teens to exist with a one-track mindset, stuck in limbo between a fulfilling life and a calculated routine.

Additionally, those with certain eating disorders hyper-fixate on body image, letting physical appearance gain precedence over their health and eating styles. Many people who struggle with positive body image may look at an aspect of themselves — the stomach, arms, muscles, legs or even parts like the nose, hair or skin — and find a need to make that part of themselves perfect. They find faults in themselves extreme enough to cause emotional distress or anxiety; either way, parents who prioritize diet culture over their child’s mental well-being are setting up their child for constant dissatisfaction with their body.

However, it is not just parents that enforce these ideas. When highly-respected celebrities demonstrate behaviors in line with toxic diet culture, it becomes all too easy for parents to excuse pushing these views onto their children and for children to absorb these practices into their own lives. A parent’s influence is to a child as a celebrity’s influence is to society; essentially, a celebrity is always in the public eye. Their actions — whether good or questionable — are bound to be replicated by those who idolize them. So as celebrities make a single Instagram post advertising a new “Amazing, 100% Effective Miracle Diet” for a few thousand dollars from a diet company, people all over the world see their role model suggesting unhealthy eating habits and view those habits as a necessary change to their lifestyle, further promoting a more widespread societal version of disordered eating, also known as diet culture.

This mindset is even seen in well-known public figures such as the Hadid family. The term “Almond Mom” was coined by teens across social media after a clip of Yolanda Hadid, the mother, telling her daughter Bella Hadid to eat a couple more almonds when Bella admitted to feeling weak from only eating half of an almond. Regardless of age, upholding dangerous ideals of eating next to nothing is incredibly detrimental to those who idolize these celebrities.

Children, who widely learn through behavioral modeling, are vulnerable to falling into this mindset by copying the behavior of their celebrity role models. Modeling is a tactic used by children — and adults — to observe and replicate behaviors. Whether it be celebrities or parents, modeling the rejection of diet culture and embracing intuitive eating leads to a stronger sense of self in adolescence. By keeping these varying factors in mind while children are around, parents more effectively ensure their children will be properly nourished and feel confident in their eating abilities.

When discussing eating patterns, it is also necessary to recognize situations in which both a child and their parents have limited control over their socioeconomic circumstances, which can determine the ability to eat a nutritious, fulfilling meal. The blame cannot be fully pushed on parents when the current economic environment makes it difficult to buy healthier foods. Some blame must be placed on the economy: socioeconomic status directly impacts relationships with healthy food.

Not only are healthier foods more expensive than the junk food in gas stations and fast-food restaurants, but food deserts — areas often of lower-income populations with limited access to affordable, fresh food and grocery stores — can also cause poor eating habits in children as well. Some people in food deserts or those who live in poverty might struggle to feed their kids, regardless of the nutritional value. These kids may learn to silence their hunger, thus negatively impacting eating, which can further influence their perceptions of healthy eating patterns. 

Because of increased food prices, few solutions are applicable to the common consumer; instead, focus should be placed on taking steps to make food a more body-positive experience. While there are a multitude of factors contributing to eating disorders and low self-confidence in teens, there are also a multitude of readily-available solutions to help impact how food is viewed in society. 

Because teens are much more prone to eating disorders than any other age group, parents must prepare children for the societal pressure that comes with growing up to ensure that they will develop healthier eating habits and be less likely to develop body insecurities and disorders.

Taking specific steps to create a healthy relationship with body image improves the physical and mental state of the body. Three main points made by the CDC aim to reflect, replace and reinforce eating habits. Reflecting on food habits by tracking consumption for two to three days provides a better understanding of which habits need to be replaced; however, these habits cannot be instantly changed in one day. To truly change habits in the long run, one must continually reinforce the new habit and maintain self-check-ins periodically to ensure that progress is on track.

Although these steps that undo bad eating habits may be successful, it is easier to eliminate the option for these bad eating habits at the source. To do this, adults must use less negative language when discussing their child’s body and their own and attempt to focus on healthiness more than a particular number on the scale. So, rather than commenting about finishing a plate or comparing one child’s eating habits to another, adults should encourage children to listen to and follow their hunger cues.

It is imperative that children learn to understand intuitive eating while growing into adulthood, both through correct parental language and regarding diet culture as dangerous rather than attention-worthy. Taking these actions will not only ensure that children grow up to have a positive body image, but they will also keep them safe from deadly dieting.