(CNN) – “I have a few spots for anyone looking to lose 20 pounds by the holidays! No diets, exercise or cravings!”
Advertisements for diet and exercise programs like this started popping up in my social media feeds in early October 2022, often accompanied by photos of women pushing shopping carts full of Halloween candy that was supposed to keep the weight off. which do not behave with them anymore to show.
Whether it’s intermittent fasting or “cheat” days, the diet culture is spreading wildly, and creeping especially among young women and girls, a population group that may be particularly vulnerable to social pressure and information wrong.
The fact that the diet culture is all over the social media targets is bad enough, but such messages are also falling down to teenagers and teenagers. (And let’s be honest, many are aimed directly at young people, too.) It couldn’t come at a worse time: Eating disorders, especially among young girls, have increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic.
“My mom is obsessed with (seeing) her Facebook friends losing tons of weight without dieting. Is this even true?” The question came from a teenage girl who later revealed she was considering hiring a health coach to help her eat ‘healthier’ after her mum overhauled her diet. Sadly , the coaching she was victimizing is part of a multi-level marketing brand that promotes rapid weight loss through caloric restriction and expensive meal replacement purchases.
Is it true? Yes. Is it healthy? Not likely, especially for a growing teen.
Later that week, a different teenage client asked about a clean eating movement she follows on Pinterest. She had read that a strict clean vegan diet is better for her and the environment, and assumed this was true because the pinned article led her to a health coaching blog. It seemed legitimate. A deep dive into the blogger’s credentials, however, revealed that the clean eating practices they shared were not actually developed by a nutritionist.
And another teenager, fresh from a week of taking part in the “what do I eat a day” challenge – a video trend across TikTok, Instagram and other social media platforms where users document the food they eat in a frame – told particular time – I’m told she decided to temporarily mute her social media accounts. Why? Because the time she spent limiting her eating and pretending to be full left her exhausted and unhappy. She found the trend on TikTok and thought it might help her create healthier eating habits, but in the end it turned out to be caloric intake instead. However, she didn’t want her friends to see that the challenge was bothering her when she had spent a whole week promoting it.
During any given week, I field countless questions from tweens and teens about the diet culture they encounter online, out in the world, and sometimes even in their own homes. But as we enter the winter holiday season, shame-based diet culture pressure, often wrapped up with toxic positivity to appear exciting, increases.
“As we approach the holidays, diet culture is in the air as much as lights and music, and it’s certainly on social media,” said Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist and associate professor at of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. “It’s so pervasive that even if it’s not aimed at teenagers, they’re picking it up by scrolling through it or listening to parents talk about it.”
Social media is not the only place where young people are exposed to harmful messages about body image and weight loss. Teenagers are bombarded with so-called ‘healthy eating’ content on television and in popular culture, at school and while engaging in extra-curricular or social activities, at home and in public spaces such as malls or grocery stores – and even in restaurants.
Instead of learning how to eat to fuel their bodies and brains, today’s teenagers are getting the message that “eating clean,” to give one example of a possible diet trend in his problem, that a better body will come – and, accordingly, an increase in happiness. Diets that cut out all carbohydrates, dairy products, gluten and meat-based proteins are popular with teenagers. But this mindset can lead to food anxiety, obsessive checking of food labels and dangerous calorie restriction.
An obsessive focus on weight loss, toning muscles and improving the overall appearance really goes against what teenagers need to grow at a healthy pace.
“Teenagers and tweens are growing into adult bodies, and that growth requires gaining weight,” said Oona Hanson, a parenting coach based in Los Angeles. “Weight gain during adolescence is not only normal but essential for health.”
The good news in all of this is that parents can play an active role in helping teenagers create a healthier narrative around their eating habits. “Parents often feel helpless in the face of TikTokers, peer pressure or the wider diet culture, but it’s important to remember this: parents have an impact too,” Hanson said. What we say and do is important to our teenagers.
Imagine a healthy relationship with food
Take a few minutes to reflect on your own eating patterns. Teenagers tend to imitate what they see, even if they don’t talk about it.
Parents and caregivers can foster a healthy relationship with food by enjoying a wide variety of foods and trying new recipes for family meals. During the holiday season, when gathering around the table can be a lot of celebration, take the opportunity to shape shared bonds. “Holidays are a great time to remember that foods nourish us in ways that could never be captured on a nutrition label,” said Hanson.
Practice addressing unhealthy body language
The holiday season is full of opportunities to get together with friends and family to celebrate and make memories, but these moments can be a source of anxiety when feeding embarrassment occurs.
When extended families gather for holiday celebrations, it’s common for people to comment on how others look or how they’ve changed since they last met. Although this is usually done with good intentions, it can be scary or upsetting for young people and teenagers.
“For young people going through puberty or body changes, it’s normal to be self-conscious or self-critical. It is not welcome for someone to say, ‘you developed’ the dialogues,” said Talib.
The Talib suggests that he practice returning and changing topics ahead of time. Role-play answers like, “We don’t talk about companies,” or “We’d rather focus on all the things we’ve accomplished this year.” And be sure to check in and provide space for your tween or teen to share feelings of hurt and resentment over any such comments at an appropriate time.
Developing digital literacy skills
Open and honest communication is always the gold standard in helping teens and tweens work through the messages and behaviors they internalize. When families talk about what they see and hear online, on podcasts, on TV, and in print, they normalize the process of engaging in critical thinking—and it can be a great shared bond between parents. and teenagers.
“Teaching media literacy skills is a helpful way to frame the conversation,” says Talib. “Talk about it openly.”
She suggests asking the following questions when discussing messages about diet culture:
● Who are they?
● What do you think their angle is?
● What do you think their message is?
● Are they a medical professional or are they trying to sell you something?
● Are they promoting a fitness program or marketing a supplement?
Talking to tweens and teens about this throughout the season—and at any time—brings taboo topics to the fore and makes it easier for your kids to share their innermost thoughts with you.
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This updated story was originally published in November 2022.