The Psychology of Diets

I recently read As a Psychologist, These Are the Problems I See with Diet Culture, a blog post written by Dr. Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in eating disorders in NYC.  She talks about how diet talk is rampant on social media and especially among moms desperate to shed weight fast. It’s both the initial posts and then the flood of comments from other moms sharing weight loss tips that are not rooted in science and promising weight loss at the expense of side effects such as irritability, fatigue, hypothalamic amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle), depression, self-hatred, and so much more. 

I am a mom of two young boys. So I’m around LOTS of moms. I would say diet and exercise talk is one of the highest ranked topics of discussion in mom circles. I am NOT judging because I’ve contributed to these conversations although I’m holding back more through my intuitive eating journey and practice. Discussions circled around negative self-talk, eating habits, and body size. The pursuit for the perfect workout that will make that bathing suit body finally happen.

A concerning point Dr. Conason talks about is:

“A mother’s concern about her own weight increases the risk of dieting, disordered eating, eating disorders, and body image dissatisfaction in her children. Our kids are like little sponges, even when we think that they aren’t listening, they are.”

I think as mothers if there is ANY reason we may consider ditching diets and ending obsessive diet culture talk is to set a good example for our kids. I’m NOT saying that if you are trying to be healthy and implement good habits in your children that you could be setting them up for disordered eating. If you are walking around saying things like….. 

“Ugh, I’m such a pig for eating that much!”

“I can’t believe how fat I feel.”

“Wow, I really need to lose weight.” 

….. we may not think our little ones are listening or have any clue what we’re talking about. After all, what does your four-year-old know about feeling fat and needing to lose weight? The sad thing is children are all too familiar with diet talk and it’s happening earlier in age than we can imagine. 

girl sad.jpg

Here are some alarming statistics from the Body Image Therapy Center in the DC area, and from the National Eating Disorders Association, to prove our children are listening and absorbing every body-bashing thing we may be saying about ourselves:

89% of girls have dieted by age 17

15% of young women have disordered eating

42% of girls in grades 1-3 want to lose weight

45% of boys and girls in grades 3-6 want to be thinner

51% of 9 and 10 year old girls say they feel better about themselves when they are dieting

81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat

9% of nine year olds have vomited to lose weight

By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape, and 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. (Smolak, 2011) 😔

Children of mothers who are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risk for modeling their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. (Andreyeva, T., Pulhl, R., Brownell, K.D., 2008)

We may think little girls are the biggest ones we have to worry about but it’s boys as well. In my diet and disordered eating days I knew I had to watch what I said around my boys; however, they were so young I figured if a slip came out here or there it wouldn’t matter.  I’ve caught my boys talking about foods that are “good” and “bad”. I NEVER use those words around food (anymore) but I realize there have been things I or my husband may have said that lead to their comments.  It’s compounded by what they’re hearing from their teachers, coaches, relatives, and their peers. 

I love what Dr. Conason suggests in her article:

The next time a mom asks for help with losing weight in a social media post, rather than responding with diet tips and cleanse recommendations, why not comment with compliments?

What about that person is special and amazing besides her jeans size? Is the number on the scale really what makes her who she is? Do you like this woman for her personality, loyalty, smarts, companionship?

Or would you drop your friendship with her because she is not an acceptable size? 

We need to teach our kids this as well. Especially in girl circles, there are a lot of compliments having to do with image, even if it isn’t weight-related. Can we teach to compliment a friend on what a great athlete she is? How smart she is? A friend you can really count on and feel like she’s your sister? 

This is one of many reasons I’m not a fan of diets. It can breed toxic talk and thoughts to our children even if this was never our intention, and it most definitely never is intended that way.  If you’re struggling with weight and don’t want your child to go down this same path, dieting in front of your kids and talking about weight, body size, “good” and “bad” foods can all contribute to a child growing into this same dieting predicament as an adult. If you grew up with a parent or other adult in your life that was deep into diet culture, you may understand exactly what I mean. 

Have you had experiences growing up with diet talk all around you? 

How has this shaped your relationship with food? 

What type of house are you in now as a mom? Is there diet and negative body talk? 

I’d love to hear your comments!


Andreyeva, T., Puhl, R. M. and Brownell, K. D. (2008), Changes in Perceived Weight Discrimination Among Americans, 1995–1996 Through 2004–2006. Obesity, 16: 1129–1134. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.35

Smolak, L. (2011). Body image development in childhood. In T. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.),
Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.