Nutrition messaging is everywhere, and readily available for kids & teens to pick up. Becoming aware of these and finding alternatives can help kids & teens develop a good relationship with food.

When I talk with tweens and teens, they’ll often tell me a piece of nutrition education they know and follow (and always with such confidence!). I’m always curious to hear where they picked up the information and how they know it’s true.

The sources vary from teachers and parents to “I just know” or “everyone knows this” as if nutrition information is just floating around in the air. And to a certain extent, it is.

Diet culture & nutrition messages are everywhere for kids to pick up

They’re on food packages that scream “100 calories”, “guilt free”, “low fat”, and the like.

We get them from TV shows and movies when we never see people eat. And if we do see a character eating, it’s either a salad or something “unhealthy” and then commented on (for example, “don’t judge me, I had a bad day”, or “I can eat this, I have a fast metabolism/worked out today”).

And of course, it’s in conversations with family, educators, and peers.

These messages are problematic in that they often have heavy diet-culture influence. And even more harmful is the underlying message tweens and teens pick up from the message. Here are some examples of messages you may have unwittingly passed on with common phrases:  

“It’s after 8 pm, why are you eating?”

Diet culture has drummed into us the belief we shouldn’t eat at night as a way to control our eating. Bodies don’t shut down at an arbitrary time of day; they know what to do with food 24/7.

Adolescent Interpretation: I should ignore my hunger if it’s not “the right time” to eat; I need rules to know when to eat because I can’t trust my body.

“Haven’t you eaten enough?”

Portion control and serving sizes have taught us to look at outside measurements to know when we’ve eaten enough. In truth, no one can tell how much you need to eat at a given time- it’s totally personal.

Adolescent Interpretation: I’m bad for being hungry and eating. I can’t trust my body’s signals. I feel shame for eating more than I should.

“If you’re hungry, have some fruit.”

Fruit & vegetables are “healthy”, low calorie foods. Many diets have ingrained in us that snacking is something to avoid, but if really needed, we can choose low calorie snacks.

Adolescent Interpretation: There’s a hierarchy to food: fruit is “good”, other food is “bad”. And even if I’m not hungry for this food, or I don’t like fruit, I can’t trust those feelings, or I need to ignore them.

“Are you sure you need another piece?”

Taking doubles or triples of any food is frowned on by diet culture, as food intake is tightly controlled. Even a “cheat day” is tightly regulated to small single portions.

Adolescent Interpretation: I can’t trust myself; I don’t deserve to eat; I need to sneak food or eat in private if I’m going to be able to eat enough for my body’s needs.

These are not the messages most parents want to be teaching their children. I doubt any parent wants to ingrain guilt, or shame, or distrust into their child’s relationship with food.

Negative emotions around food cause harm

One of my main concerns when working with adolescents is for them to develop a good relationship with food. To me, that means they don’t experience negative emotions, like guilt and shame, from eating.

Negative emotions from eating can lead to disordered eating, cycles of restriction and overeating, disconnection from body, body shame & stigma, and stress, which have much greater negative effects on the body than eating food that is “less nutritious”. 

Combatting diet messages 

What can you do instead to challenge these messages?

Discuss nutrition messaging with your adolescent 

If your child asks about package labels, like “what are calories, and is 100 good?” answer them truthfully and neutrally. “Calories give our body energy and 100 tells us how much fuel is there. We need loads more than that in a day!” Or “why does that say guilt-free?” Respond that while some people think eating tasty food is a bad thing, it’s really not  something to feel bad about, because food should taste good and it’s supposed to give us energy. 

When consuming media together, point out the eating (or non-eating) habits. When the kids run out to school without eating breakfast, discuss that. If a woman and man are eating together but different foods, discuss that women don’t have to eat less than or differently than men. Point out that food doesn’t have to be earned or justified to eat and enjoy.

Keep negative nutrition messages out of the house as much as possible

Try to avoid buying foods that have diet messages on them or repackage them at home. For example, I found a bag of potato chips called “less guilt”. That is not something I’d want kids to see and learn that food should be associated with guilty feelings.

Keep judgement away from food and eating

Let everyone serve themselves from family-style meals. This gives everyone the control and opportunity to take their chosen food in amounts they need.

Allow for seconds and thirds (if available) without comment. This shows you trust your adolescent to eat in response to their body’s signals and needs.

Talk about food neutrally. Don’t label them good/bad, healthy/junk, etc. This allows your child or teen to eat all food free of guilt or shame.  

Read more on how to raise adolescents with a good relationship with food here.