Generational Dieting Trauma: How To Break the Diet Cycle With Your Kids

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Hearing the word “trauma” may feel intense if you feel nothing “that bad” happened in your childhood. However, generational trauma refers to a series of behaviors or ideas about the world that were passed down to you from family or the generations before you. Specifically, folks with generational dieting trauma may experience poor body image, chronic dieting, disordered eating behaviors, and potentially an eating disorder.

You may remember being a certain age when you became more aware of your body, what you ate, and how others view you. While this is a normal part of development, it can be damaging when it creates high levels of stress and anxiety, and you start to play an active role in changing your body at a young age.

How generational dieting trauma starts

Let’s look at this through the lens of your relationship with food. Think back to when you were a baby: You ate when you felt hungry; you stopped when you were full. Somewhere along the way, you received the message that food is to be restricted, portioned, or counted. You could have gotten this memo directly from a family member who made you feel as if you weren’t allowed to eat all foods. On the other hand, it could have been indirectly communicated by observing a family member who didn’t allow themselves to eat all foods.

Whether subtle or painfully blatant, this is how generational dieting trauma works, according to Rabiya Bower, MHSc, RDN, who inherited generational dieting trauma from her mother. “My mom has struggled with weight for as long as I can remember," she says. "She constantly complained about how fat and unhappy she was. As an adult, I realize this is so sad. I look exactly like my mom!”

Bower notes that she wants to break this cycle in her own family: “After I had my own daughter, I knew I wanted to do better," she says. "Shortly after her birth, I jumped into anti-diet nutrition. We don’t speak negatively about our bodies in my home, and I’ve had to remind my mother multiple times about her body shaming language in front of my kids.”

How common is generational dieting trauma?

The common parenting phrase “Your kids are always watching” highlights how our children learn from our attitudes and behaviors with food. We now have research that draws associations between mother’s eating habits and children’s attitudes toward food as young as toddlerhood, too!

Intuitive eating dietitian Kelsey Kunik, RDN, from Graciously Nourished, expands on this idea: “We learn how to be in the world, what's important, and what we should prioritize from a young age as we watch the adults around us. When we watch the adults in our lives participate in dieting and disordered eating patterns, we're shown from a young age that our bodies are meant to be controlled, food is to be feared, and our instincts and preferences shouldn't be trusted.”

So, how many of us are struggling with this? The stats may surprise you. “According to this 2023 Review in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics, one in five kids globally shows signs of disordered eating," says Dani Lebovitz, MS, RDN, a kids food and body positivity expert in Franklin, Tenn. "Similarly, from another 2010 study in Sex Roles, children as young as three years old express a preference for thinness. Now more than ever, it’s important that we change the conversation around food and bodies with our kids.”

What are the signs of generational dieting trauma?

If you’re wondering if you have experienced generational dieting trauma, Emily Settler, RD, LD of Intuitive Eating Made Simple says to ask yourself these questions—your answers can be quite eye-opening.

  • Do you feel you are worthy of food?
  • Do you experience guilt or shame when you eat certain foods?
  • Do you feel you are allowed to eat and enjoy all types of foods?

If you struggle with chronic dieting and restriction, feelings of body dissatisfaction, low self esteem, or emotional distress around food, you may be experiencing the downstream effects of generational dieting trauma. It’s important to note that these symptoms can pop up at any age, and they may look different person-to-person.

Breaking the cycle

Breaking generational dieting trauma refers to the process of overcoming the negative impact that dieting and disordered eating behaviors can have on individuals and their families across generations. Dieting trauma refers to the emotional and psychological distress caused by restrictive diets, body shaming, weight stigma, and unhealthy relationships with food and body image.

To break generational dieting trauma involves recognizing and challenging these damaging patterns, fostering a positive and inclusive approach to food and body image, promoting body acceptance, and embracing intuitive eating principles. When you start to make this shift, a common challenge is being able to communicate clearly with those around you about your triggers and what they can do to support you differently in the future.

“One of the biggest challenges I see is family members or friends getting uncomfortable or even upset about the client's changing approach to their self-care and rejection of diet culture. Sometimes, a person's non-diet journey may include feeling alienated from certain people in their lives because their main commonality was dieting, which can cause relationships to end or change,” explains Caroline Young, MS, RD, RYT, owner of Whole Self Nutrition.

Finding support

To break the cycle within your own family, you may need to do your own healing first. If you want to heal from your diet trauma, you’ll benefit from the support of therapists, dietitians, and other healthcare professionals who specialize in disordered eating and body image healing.

“Some of the most powerful tools to heal from generational dieting trauma include parts work and values work. I guide clients through a process of identifying the first moment in their lives when they receive the message from their parents or caregiver that their body is a problem to be fixed or that food is something they need to closely control,” Young says.

Once you understand your history, you’re going to need a unique approach to breaking the cycle with your children. “Parents who are ready to break generational dieting trauma can start by transforming their food parenting practices and feeding environments, setting the stage for their children to have a lifelong healthy relationship with food and their bodies,” Lebovitz offers. If you’re a parent, it’s never too late to begin breaking the cycle.

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