Vilifying Food – How fad diets are affecting our children’s health

Young girl and cupcake

Fad diets have taken the U.S. by storm: Paleo, Mediterranean, the “Fast Diet” – even Gwyneth Paltrow has a new cookbook.  Just as quickly as one diet is “out,” another diet emerges to take its place. With so many options, celebrity endorsements and websites full of misinformation, how can parents know which diets are safe – especially for kids?

Celia Framson, MPH, RD, CD, and Mary Jones Verbovski, MS, RD, CD, clinical pediatric dietitians at Seattle Children’s Hospital encourage parents to keep kids in mind when evaluating a potential diet.

“The alarming prevalence of these diets and trends has created an entirely new entity in the family dynamic,” says Jones Verbovski. “The subject of food and diet can really affect the parent-child relationship. Many parents are constant dieters. Sometimes we overlook how a diet may be affecting a child.”

For parents who diet

Parents who adopt certain diets or dietary lifestyles should be aware of the implications on kids. Children are easily influenced by external factors – school, peers, family and celebrities. Also, they are not the ones buying the food that sits in the pantry. A parent’s dietary choice usually falls onto the child.

Children are impressionable and may adopt a diet simply because they want to copy their parents or fit in with their friends. Recently, a 7-year-old girl’s “diyet list” garnered media attention and raised controversy among both dietitians and parents. The girl reportedly learned about dieting from a friend. Framson and Jones Verbovski say it’s important to develop a positive relationship with food and set a good example for your child.  If your child announces they want to incorporate certain foods or restrict certain foods, make sure you understand what is motivating the change and help them understand they need a wide variety of foods. Have they decided to cut out meat, sweets or carbohydrates because you have?

Many of the most popular diets in the U.S. have a tendency to vilify foods. Framson says that trend isn’t healthy for kids who need a balanced diet for their growing bodies and minds. We have taught children and teens to look at foods as being either “good” or “bad,” she says, instead of promoting a healthy balanced diet, and taking a holistic approach to nutrition.

Framson and Jones Verbovski encourage parents to be aware of how they speak about foods and diets. Saying a cupcake is “bad” or that sweets will make you fat, can give the impression that a child should feel ashamed if they eat them. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ newly updated position paper, families should focus on moderation, portion size and exercise for balancing food and beverage intakes.

Rather than labeling cupcakes as “bad” and apples as “good,” focus instead on feeling your best, stopping when you’re full and eating a balanced diet. Teaching children to feel shame in association with certain foods can lead to unhealthy habits, say Framson and Jones Verbovski, like binge eating or restrictive eating disorders. It’s easy for a child to go from “this food is bad” to “I am bad” for wanting to eat that food, says Framson.

It’s important to talk to children about nutrition and healthy eating choices. Typically, children only learn the most basic principles of nutrition at school. Many times these lessons are misconstrued and children take away that they need to cut out sugar all together from their diet, a lesson that Jones Verbovski says isn’t necessarily the right approach.  “Parents should give their children options,” she says. “In our house sugar is okay in moderation.”

Vegetarian and vegan kids

Don’t be surprised if kids around six or seven years old decide to go vegetarian, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. When children first learn where food comes from it’s perfectly normal to have mixed emotions.

The controversial children’s book “Vegan is Love” has ignited a recent debate among parents – is veganism healthy for kids? The book depicts animals crowded behind bars and discusses animal testing. It wasn’t so much the content that stirred the heated debate, however, it was the uncertainty behind the nutritional safety of the vegan diet.

“If a child wishes to be vegetarian or vegan, parents need to look deeper and make sure that is an appropriate choice that works with the family’s food values,” Framson says. “Parents also need to watch for red flags and ensure their child or teen is consuming enough nutrients and calories.” If families choose to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet, parents need to be mindful of the dietary implications. Young children need many specific nutrients for their growing minds and bodies. Parents need to incorporate variety into a child’s diet, making sure they get enough vitamin B12, protein, iron, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids.

Tips for dieting parents

Framson and Jones Verbovski suggest parents incorporate diets that fit into their family dynamic and culture. Think about your schedule and lifestyle – cooking is time consuming, organic foods can cost more and there may not be an abundance of fresh fruits or vegetables in your neighborhood. “Your lifestyle needs to fit your food and your food needs to fit your lifestyle,” says Jones Verbovski.

Also, set realistic expectations and don’t focus on losing x amount of weight. “Children shouldn’t be trying to lose significant amounts of weight,” says Jones Verbovski. Parents should allow children to choose what they eat, within reason. For example, offer 2 different veggies at dinnertime, rather “you have to eat this” Incorporate a variety of foods into a child’s diet and give them the responsibility of picking which works best for them. Allow them to engage in choosing what’s on the menu sometimes. “Focus on feeling good about yourself and your lifestyle,” says Framson. Remember, being healthy isn’t about a number on the scale. Fad diets come and go; eating a well balanced diet and feeling healthy can last a lifetime.

Remember to look at the bigger picture. Some days are better than others when it comes to eating well. Look at each week instead of each day, says Framson and Jones Verbovski You should spend some time and energy planning meals and snacks so you make choices you feel good about, but not so much time and energy that it increases stress. Life, after all, is a balance.