• Sarah Griffith

A parent's guide to ditching the diet

If you haven’t found the energy to diet this year, it might actually be a blessing in disguise. And not only in terms of your own wellbeing. Having a parent on a diet isn't always great for children either. So if you're worried about or frustrated with your child's eating, ditching the diet could be a step in the right direction.



I was lucky enough to be on a call with a prominent UK health and diet writer recently. But when I asked him about the relationship between dieting and feeding children, it was clear from his answer that this wasn't something he had given much thought to. And his approach seems to be representative of the diet industry as a whole. There's a long way to go in terms of recognising, understanding and ameliorating the negative impacts the diet industry has on family life and children’s eating.


These are the most commonly reported negative impacts I see with dieting, both in terms of my own clients and the wider academic research:


The behaviour we model has a powerful effect on our children


In fact, it’s the main way that they learn from us. We want our children to eat well and regularly. If we’re on a diet that advocates meal replacement shakes, removing major food groups, skipping meals, or fasting, then the behaviour we’re modelling is at odds with the behaviour we want to see in our children, making it much harder for us to parent effectively if our children aren’t cooperating at mealtimes.


Dieting can be stressful


According to research, this stress seems to happen in two main ways. Studies show that we can feel psychological stress from constantly monitoring what we eat, and that our bodies can also become physically stressed from extreme calorie restriction, which can cause us to produce more cortisol (a key stress hormone). In addition to this, if you're already cooking several different meals every night to cater to different family members' requirements, adding a new, prescriptive diet into the mix just adds further pressure and complexity.


If mealtimes are stressful in your house anyway, with frustration, anxiety or annoyance surrounding your child’s mealtime behaviour, then doing whatever you can to feel calmer is an excellent place to start. Once again, dieting may be working against you and your children, particularly if you need to take the heat out of a fraught mealtime dynamic.


Dieting can be linked to emotional eating


This is especially true for anyone caught up in a yo-yo dieting cycle. We know that following a prescriptive diet regime doesn’t usually work. Historically in the UK, only about 10 percent of dieters have managed to lose significant amounts of weight, and most have regained it within a year. Combine this sense of defeat with the attachment of self-worth to body image, and things become particularly toxic. Studies suggest a complex relationship between weight, mental health, parenting and unhelpful feeding practices. Although more research is needed to understand these issues better, the current state of knowledge suggests that for some parents at least, dieting may be undermining their efforts to help their children grow up with a healthy relationship with food.


Sharing family meals is one of the best ways to help children eat well


Eating with a parent has been shown to improve children's eating, as well as having a whole host of other benefits too. And part of this is that family meals can be used to set an expectation that everyone will be eating more or less the same thing. If mum or dad are suddenly eating special diet foods, or not eating with the family at all, the power of a shared meal is lost.

None of this is to say that eating healthily while losing weight in a sustainable way isn’t possible for parents who want to improve their child’s eating and mealtime behaviours. It most certainly is.


In fact a lot of the behaviours that will help you, can also be helpful for your child.

Here are a few ideas you might want to try:


1. Eat with your children and let everyone serve themselves


Trust in your own and your children’s ability to feel hungry and full. Take a smallish helping at first, eat slowly, and wait for a little while to see if you’re still really hungry – if so, have a little more. It can take up to 20 minutes for your brain to register that you’re full. The Japanese saying “hara hachi bu” is helpful here. It translates as ‘belly 80% full’ and is an eating practice that encourages you to stop before you get completely full, giving your brain time to catch up with your stomach.


Any food left over in the serving dishes can often be safely stored and used another day, rather than becoming food waste like the food left on individuals’ plates (although check NHS advice or similar if you’re unsure about safe storage and use of leftovers).


2. Avoid eating in front of screens


This undermines the potential benefits from family meals and also encourages ‘mindless’ eating, making it far harder for us to tune into our own hunger and fullness cues.


3. Focus on adding nutrition rather than cutting out 'bad' foods


If half of your plate is full of veg, you’re doing well. And make sure you keep fat and protein sources too – these are also essential for good health and help us to feel satiated. This can become part of a mindset that focuses on ‘adding in’ nutritious foods rather than ‘cutting down’ or ‘giving up’ ‘bad’ foods. Sauces or dressings are no bad thing either, often making vegetables and salads far more palatable. Again, everyone can be left to add their own, to suit their individual tastes.


4. Plan your meals ahead of time and use a shopping list.


This can help with lots of things, including the increased likelihood of eating healthily, reduced grazing, and a calmer run-up to mealtimes.


5. Take care of your health and your family's health in a holistic way


Managing stress, nurturing sleep, keeping in touch with friends, moving regularly throughout the day, and getting outside into nature and natural light are all things that help us feel better and support our ability to make healthier food choices - and this applies to adults and children alike.

So if lockdown has left you without the energy to start a diet this year, that may not be such a bad thing. As a rule, the diet industry isn’t family friendly – or even family aware for the most part - and many of their prescriptions could be doing more harm that good for your children, as well as for you. Understanding and applying the principles of nutritious, mindful and intuitive eating that you can then adapt to suit your own family, is likely to serve you and your children far better than any prescriptive weight-loss plan.


If you recognise any of the negative consequences of your own dieting on your child’s eating, it’s never too late to try a different approach. If this is something you feel you’d like help with, please get in touch.


I am a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. I offer one-on-one and small-group coaching for parents who want to improve their children's eating and meal time behaviours. If you think I might be able to help you with your child's eating, please get in touch and ask for a free initial consultation.


References

  • Francis, L. A., & Birch, L. L. (2005). Maternal influences on daughters' restrained eating behavior. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 24(6), 548–554. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.24.6.548

  • Gaysina, D., Hotopf, M., Richards, M., Colman, I., Kuh, D., & Hardy, R. (2011). Symptoms of depression and anxiety, and change in body mass index from adolescence to adulthood: Results from a British birth cohort. Psychological Medicine,41(1), 175-184. doi:10.1017/S0033291710000346

  • Martini, M. G., Barona-Martinez, M., & Micali, N. (2020). Eating disorders, mothers and their children: a systematic review of the literature. Archives of women's mental health, 23(4), 449–467. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-020-01019-x

  • Nakamura, Y., Walker, B. R., & Ikuta, T. (2016). Systematic review and meta-analysis reveals acutely elevated plasma cortisol following fasting but not less severe calorie restriction. Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 19(2), 151–157.

  • Tomiyama, A. J., Mann, T., Vinas, D., Hunger, J. M., Dejager, J., & Taylor, S. E. (2010). Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosomatic medicine, 72(4), 357–364. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c