What is Diet Talk and Why is it Harmful?

“Diet talk” includes any conversation about restricting certain foods or food groups, especially for the sake of wanting to change one’s body weight, shape, or size. This includes such practices as harmful food labeling”, or assigning a “moral” value to foods. This causes us to value ourselves or others based on which foods we do/do not eat. Examples of this include labeling foods “good/bad”, “healthy/unhealthy”, “clean/junk”, or similar labels.

“NUTRITION MATTERS TO ME. But, you know what else matters to me? Not giving my kids a weird complex about food. I want to teach my kids that moderation is key and that even junk food has a place in our lives. Also I have a wicked sweet tooth and I want to have access to a million tiny Halloween Almond Joys.”  -Madison Mom, Let your kids eat halloween candy

Engaging in any conversation about restricting certain foods or labeling foods with any sort of value judgments—the same way we label for children choices related to how to treat others, work ethic, etc.—sets kids up to feel a heavy burden when it comes to food.  They want to please the adults they admire—i.e. you—and therefore feel morally bad about wanting or preferring foods adults label as “bad” or “unhealthy.” The result? Children, now or in years to come, either consume the “bad” or “unhealthy” foods and feel poorly about themselves, or choose instead to diet, restrict, or engage in other unhealthy behaviors. For millions of kids, this is the start of eating disorders. In fact, dieting and restricting foods is the #1 predictor of a child going on to develop an eating disorder.

When we label foods, we create a false idea that there are certain foods that we should not eat, and we set ourselves and the kids in our lives up for failure. When kids hear these messages, they may enjoy a slice of birthday cake at a party or an ice cream cone after a tough soccer game and decide that they are “bad” for indulging. This can lead to disordered eating behaviors, such as severely restricting the foods they eat, or overindulging when they get the chance.

“I do not have any labels. I do not call foods “good foods”, “bad foods”, “junk food”. None of the “all or none” labels…all things are okay in moderation. Even red dye number 40 or whatever else is in our foods, they all are ok in moderation. On the psychological side of it, it’s important that we have that mindset. It is not healthy to eat salads every day. It is not healthy to eat ice cream every day. Psychological health is being able to have all of it in moderation. And eating in a way that’s sustainable till you’re 90.” – Dr. Carlin Anderson, Ph.D, LP, CMPC

Eating disorders, often misunderstood or overlooked, are a serious health condition that will impact the lives of nearly 2.0 million children alive today who do not currently have an eating disorder but will develop one before adulthood. Eating disorder survivors and therapists can attest to the gut-wrenching harm diet-talk created. 

Dieting or restricting foods is the #1 predictor of a child going on to develop an eating disorder. But we can act. The time to diet talk for ourselves and the children in our lives is now.

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Additional Resources on Diet Talk: