Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mom, what's a "diet?" Dealing with the "D-word"

Sunday morning I'm reading comics to my daughter and found again that there were at least three that I had to "edit." (Pretty typical for the 'comics' these days.) One was about gastric bypass (the snowman missing the middle ball) another, "Do these pants make my tentacles look fat," and another about dieting. It brought back a comment a reader wrote after my last post.

"I'm livid that we live in a world where a 4 year old is already getting messages about what is and isn't acceptable in terms of body size and food choices! I thought I wouldn't have to start fighting this until about age 10 (which is when I unfortunately discovered dieting).
My 4 year old daughter brought home a "learn to read" book about being healthy...I saw "eat lots of fruits and vegetables"--okay, I can live with that. And "get exercise"--okay. But there it was on page 4: "eat only a little bit of fat" Argh! My daughter was puzzled--what's fat? Why can't I eat it?...
And then a week ago one of the teenage instructors at the ice rink told my daughter that if you eat a lot of pizza you'll get fat (I have no idea what the context was). Suddenly my intuitive eating child is questioning her choices. (read my comments on the blog for my reaction to this gem of an ice-skating teacher...)
So the question is, when the topic comes up how do I talk about dieting in a way that does not encourage the behavior?"

Remember, we're talking about four-year-olds here- they are pretty unsophisticated. (I remember working at a summer camp and getting the kids ready for swim time. The 3 and 4 year olds were all running around naked and one kid had underwear on and they all teased him, "I see your underwear!") My first advice is "EDIT" when possible (notice it's an anogram?) As much as possible, try to edit, or not expose them to notions of dieting, weight loss etc. But, as my reader noted, it is near impossible in the world we live in.

First, when a child asks you about a diet, or fat, or Weight Watchers, ask them what they think. You may learn that they are not really that clued in, or that there is something that you can clarify. EDIT your answer, a 4 year-old doesn't get the complexities, and you need to be careful not to confuse with too much information. Try to stay neutral and pleasant during the conversation. If you are unable, because of issues with the D-word, ask a partner, or trusted adult to take on the issue. Again, a few sentences might be all it takes. I would also be careful not to lie.

Here are a few ideas, then I'd love to hear from you all.

On the topic of eating fat, you could say,

"That book is wrong, and we know better now. Fat is good to eat, we need to eat fat to live. Avocados, nuts, ice-cream, salad dressing and butter have fat in them. Fat can taste pretty yummy! We're lucky we get to eat lots of different foods, including fat."

On "dieting,"

"It means that people don't eat as much as they want, or the foods that they want to eat. They might feel hungry allot. I wouldn't like to feel hungry all day. We don't eat that way in our family. We eat when we are hungry and stop when we have had enough."


"It means that you don't listen to your tummy to decide how much or what foods to eat. When people diet, even if they are hungry, they might not eat. That's not good for your body. A good way to eat is to eat when you are hungry and stop when you have had enough, and to enjoy lots of different kinds of foods like we do!"

Ask your child if that makes sense, and then move on, change the topic.

Older kids will have more of a framework and logical thinking to explore the topic further and I will address that in a future post. I am not a child psychologist, but just a few thoughts! I'd love to hear what you think. It's a great exercise to have the words ready for when the inevitable questions come up... Am I way off base? How have you handled this?


  1. I love the third answer: it's simple and to the point. I think "eat when you are hungry and stop when you have had enough" is the best message. Even little kids can understand it, and it is reinforced by how pleasurable it is to eat when you are hungry, and how unpleasant it is to stop while you are still hungry or to keep eating until you are too full.

    How do you feel about throwing in some size acceptance, in a "people come in different sizes" kind of way? Kids are very quick at picking up the sociocultural signals that equate fat with ugliness and negative character traits. Also, it may be difficult to educate in a non-diet mentality when everyone around the kid (aunts/uncles, teachers, grandparents...) is dieting and/or talking about it.

  2. I totally agree about the size acceptance part, but I try to do that all the time, and if it didn't come up, I might not link it with the diet. I don't know! I also specifically wanted to deal with the diet question here.
    M is now noticing and commenting on size a bit more. Thanks to Shrek (which she has seen a commercial for) she knows about the "fat cat" who is always pictured devouring large amounts of food. Thanks again, Disney!
    Anyway, I have over the years, here and there casually mentioned that people are different, some have curly hair, some straight, some walk with a walker, some run easily without one, some are bigger, some are smaller, some are tall, some are short... (I often go through a list casually that includes size, for example. M asked when she would get glasses, because most in her family have them. I said, she might need them someday, and that it sometimes can run in families, like curly hair, blue eyes, or being bigger or smaller...) In my comment about the teacher saying the "too much pizza" thing, I simply said, "She's wrong. Some big kids eat lost of pizza, and some skinny kids eat lots of pizza. You can't know how much someone eats by looking at them..."

  3. "Thanks to Shrek (which she has seen a commercial for) she knows about the "fat cat" who is always pictured devouring large amounts of food. Thanks again, Disney!"

    We saw Shrek this weekend and there were a couple of references to fatness that annoyed me, seeing as how it's supposed to be about the uselessness of judging people by appearance, right?

    I work hard to remind my son about how people come in different shapes and sizes. He comments on my "jiggly" belly, so I let him know that some people are jiggly and some are not, and isn't that great?

    He's a string bean child but he claims to have a jiggly belly. I like that he sees that as a positive characteristic, at least for the time being!

  4. Nice, Heidi! I like to take that approach too, some people are this way, some are other ways... What will be hard is when they hear the relentless drumbeat of fat=unhealthy. I think it will be important to have some words ready for that. Maybe, "Some fat people are unhealthy, and some thin people are unhealthy. We are learning so much more now, we used to think that fat people were unhealthy, but now we know better." (If there are healthy big people in your lives you can talk about that person, or maybe find a photo online of a larger person doing a triathalon etc...) "Auntie Jenny is big, and she's healthy. She eats all kinds of great foods, she gets lots of sleep, she loves biking and hiking..." If you are big, you can talk about the ways you take care of yourself, and reassure your child. Thoughts?

  5. Sorry, I'm late to this party but since my original comment was used to start this post (for which I'm honored!), I'm going to chime in.

    Funny you should bring up Shrek, because my 4 yo and I saw it last Sunday and the fat cat bothered me too. I think it's interesting that I treat my cats similarly to how I treat my kid: I do let them eat as much as they want, kibble is always available, but I dispense wet food at specific times. And I've never had a fat cat. I know it's a complex issue (and that dogs are different) but I have always thought that cats as well as people are more relaxed around food when they get to control how much they eat.

    Anyway, the saga of my daughter's awakening to the wonderful world of food policing continues. She announced the other day that a new kid at her daycare is fat and that she only wants "thin friends". Can you hear my heart breaking? Actually, I know that the thought is not original to her, that's she's just parroting one of the older kids that attends the daycare for after-school care. My response was, "Well, I've decided that I only want a daughter with brown eyes." My green-eyed daughter looked startled and then we started joking about all the other physical characteristics that it would be silly to use to decide who was your friend. A teachable moment, I guess, but still heartbreaking.

    I appreciate so much all of the suggestions here on how to handle the issue of dieting when it comes up. And I do try to incorporate may of those ideas into my discussions with my daughter.


  6. Oh boy.
    I am so sorry that this is coming up at all, for you, for her, for the kids in her school, for our society. What silliness with tragic consequences! I am impressed with how you handled it. You didn't shame her, indeed a teachable moment. Thank you for sharing, I might use that too if it comes up...
    Thanks so much for sharing, you are adding a richness to this blog that is invaluable!