Podcast Episodes

Why Teaching Healthy Eating to Kids Can Lead to Body Image & Food Struggles

October 3, 2022

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Towards the end of this past school year I got an email from our PTA asking everyone to take a survey about a new teaching “healthy eating” to kids initiative they were wanting to implement.

And, of course, given that I’m a dietitian and I can already see the red flags all over this type of thing, I enthusiastically took the survey. 

I understand that the heart and intention behind this is good. These people are wanting to help the kiddos be as healthy as they can be. But what people don’t understand is the risk and harm that these types of programs teaching healthy eating to kids can actually cause. 

Research tells us that dieting (which is essentially what these healthy eating initiatives are teaching to the kids) is the #1 risk factor for two things: 

  1. Dieting is the #1 risk factor for a kid developing an eating disorder
  2. Dieting the #1 predictor of a kid gaining weight above and beyond their growth curve (so basically gaining more weight than their body is meant to). 

So anything that we are saying or doing with kids that pushes them towards dieting thoughts and behaviors is extremely risky in terms of their physical and mental health. 

And I know this is confusing to people, because they’re like, “Well, Katy, teaching healthy eating to kids isn’t recommending dieting. It’s just recommending healthy eating, and we need to teach our kids about healthy eating.”

(And usually the unspoken elephant in the room is that people feel they have to teach “healthy eating” so that kids don’t get fat. And there’s the fat phobia and anti-fat bias that shows up in our kids’ lives at such a young age.)

I totally empathize with and understand why you wouldn’t want your kids to get fat. Especially if you’ve struggled with weight and body image yourself. It’s a really awful and traumatic experience to be a fat person in our society that hates fat people so much. There are so many ways that we openly criticize and shame fat people. And there are really subtle ways that people in larger bodies are shown that they aren’t acceptable. It’s really overt AND covert. And of course you wouldn’t want your kids to have to deal with that.

This is where I see well-intended parents sometimes getting tripped up and inadvertently passing on their own body image and food struggles to their kids – and ironically this often happens when the parents are actually trying NOT to pass these struggles on. They are trying to HELP their kids not deal with these issues. 

And this is the core topic of episode 35 of the Rebuilding Trust with Your Body podcast: how to avoid passing on your food and body stuff to your kids, and how to help your kids have a positive body image and a good relationship with food – not by teaching them “healthy eating”. 

Back to my story – I posted about this on Tik Tok (which if you’re not following me yet on TT, come hang out).

And this TT video not only went viral in terms of views, but the comments section is still poppin’ months later.

Let me share a few of the comments with you that I got in response to my video:

  • Healthy eating initiatives at school directly contributed to my ED
  • There’s sooo much privilege associated with eating “healthy” as well
  • It’s never usually culturally literate
  • My health class calorie counting assignment directly increased my ED behaviors
  • An elementary aged kid I used to nanny thought corn was unhealthy because he thought it had corn syrup…kids definitely don’t understand nuance
  • The amount of privilege underlying this conversation is alarming. Kids will be ashamed when their parents can’t afford it 
  • We have had to unlearn this at home. Food is food.
  • YEP. Restriction of “unhealthy” foods directly led to me having BED for years
  • Oh, so this explains why as soon as I made my own money I just bought all the snack foods I could

And there were hundreds more comments like this.

There were two core themes to the comments, overall. They were:

  1. Healthy eating programs contributed to my ED
  2. This is a really privileged and ignorant discussion both racially and culturally as well as from a socio economic standpoint

The other category of comments I got was from teachers who have been forced to push these messages and programs teaching healthy eating onto their students and to basically become the food police. The teachers are telling me they don’t want to be doing this. 

From these responses that I got, I knew that this was a really really important topic to keep talking about.

Because so many adults are able to trace back their struggles to messages they received about food and their bodies during childhood. Whether it be from schools, teachers, babysitters, parents, coaches or other adults in their lives. 

And again, I want to fully acknowledge that most of the time these adults are only trying to help. And they are often coming from a somewhat wounded place themselves. They don’t want the kids to suffer the way they have.

So then the question becomes, how do we help our kids in ways that don’t screw them up?

And how do we avoid passing on our food and body image struggles or our food and body image fears onto our kids?

Love this topic. It’s so important. On episode 35 of the podcast, you’ll hear:

  • Why kids are so prone to developing food and body image issues between 10-16 years old
  • How to create a healthy home environment when it comes to food
  • How to promote positive body image in your kids
  • What to do you help your kids (and yourself) through these struggles

I also answer the following FAQ’s in this episode: 

  • How do we teach our kids healthy eating then if talking about this stuff is harmful? 
  • But what if I (or my spouse, or my kid) NEED to lose weight for health? 
  • What if my kids are still hearing these healthy eating lessons at school, online or from friends?
  • What do I do if I realize that I’ve been teaching my kids diet mentality? Have I screwed them up for life? How do I fix this? CAN I fix this?

I hope you find this episode as powerful as I did given the massive response to this topic that I’ve gotten on social media. It’s clearly an issue that touches a nerve for so many people, and we need to keep having these conversations in order to help our kids and the future generations not deal with so much of the diet culture stuff that we’ve grown up with.

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What I didn’t know I needed! This podcast really helped me understand intuitive eating and how to incorporate it in my life. Katy’s approach to helping us understand and trust our bodies is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

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This helps me support more people — just like you — move toward healing their relationship with food and their body image. 

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Resources mentioned in the episode:

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