All in the family: Learning diet culture

Posted by: Raquel Griffin

Time to read: 4.5 minutes

One of the most devastating things I hear as an eating disorder therapist is how many people have been put on diets as children. 

Diet culture can be so insidious that what a parent thinks is just trying to do the “right thing” or promote a “healthy lifestyle” for their littles, can really be the tee up of an eating disorder. These often well-intentioned parents can be predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating eating disorders in their kids. Not always, but often times, eating disorders begin in the home and in the family, normalizing the harmful all-or-nothing beliefs of “good” bodies and foods and “bad” bodies and foods. Research shows that kids begin equating “fat” with “bad” between the ages of three and five and one of the strongest precipitating factors in the development of eating disorders is dieting. Dieting is normalized disordered eating and the more this is modelled or expected in families, the more potential for harm.

Here are just a few examples of what I call “family food harms”, adapted from the book Intuitive Eating

  • Needing to clean your plate at mealtimes
  • Rules related to snacks, sweets, desserts
  • Food used as a conditioning tool (reward & punishment)
  • Encouraged/told to lose weight, put on a diet
  • Rules related to activity/exercise
  • Parent/caregiver engaged in dieting behaviours or disordered eating
  • Parent/caregiver criticized own body/weight, negative self-talk
  • Taking diet culture harms to the next level in families involves children being encouraged or instructed to limit their food intake for the purpose of losing weight or “preventing” fatness. To be told as a child that there is something wrong with your body and these are the measures you need to take in order to “fix” it is deeply disturbing. And yet, this is a common trauma experienced by many. And, yes I purposefully am referring to this as a traumatic experience for folks. To inflict the deprivation of an essential need such as food onto a child and encouragement of that child to disconnect from their body’s cues and needs is deeply traumatic. 

    It’s completely understandable to have anger toward the people that normalized diet culture to you as a child and taught you to dislike and distrust your body. Honouring those feelings is part of the grieving process. Remember, those who have done harm to us as it relates to food, eating, and our body relationship are also victims of diet culture themselves. Finding compassion for those individuals can be helpful in healing and helping us navigate what to do next, exploring how to provide ourselves the care we needed but didn’t receive. Virgie Tovar, fat activist and author, describes the challenge of this: “I can look back and intellectually understand that my family is made up of real, live, squishy people who are very hurt. […]  I can understand that they need compassion […] I can recognize that […] they actually did their version of their very best. But the body is not a creature of intellect.  It doesn’t care how damaged or hurt my family is because all my body knows is the very thing that has been beating like a drum in the pit of my stomach for as long as I can remember: I am not safe here.” 

    What I appreciate about what Virgie describes here is that we can’t always intellectualize ourselves out of a trauma response. We can intellectually have compassion for and validate the pain and suffering of our perpetrators while also making choices that prioritize our own inner peace. If you’re struggling with finding compassion for your parents and others who have sabotaged your relationship with food or body, you’re not alone. It’s never too late to begin to show your body its worth listening to, worth being respected, worth taking up space. Sure, maybe the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time to plant a tree is today.

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