One.. yes just ONE off handed comment by an adult to a young child or teenager can set them on a destructive path to disordered eating with impacts that can be felt for a lifetime.

If you’ve listened to my recent podcast chat with Dr Suzie Edge, you would have heard her tell a story that has stuck with her for her whole life. How when she was at boarding school, she went up to get a donut, and was told that she wasn’t to have one as she was getting too fat. This then led to a cascade of abnormal eating patterns. Sadly, she is not alone, and there are many examples of seemingly innocent comments made to young girls in particular that lead to a lifetime of anguish and pain around disordered eating.

My response to this is twofold. Firstly, as an adult, we need to consider the language we use around anyone, but particularly children. The problem is in my experience, many adults don’t really know what language to use in this area to themselves, let alone children. The purpose of this article is not to go down the track of why this has happened. It is deep and has many things behind it. We can’t change the past anyway, so let’s look at how we can re write the future.

But before I get to how best to talk about weight and dieting, let’s look at some fundamental misunderstandings in our thinking and mind. What many of us don’t realise is that we have our own superpower. Our own minds. No one can say or do anything to us that we have to take as truth. When other’s speak, they are coming from their own thinking in that moment. Nothing else. It’s rarely about the person they are speaking too, it’s about them. So when this lady told Suzie not to eat the donut, she was coming from her own thinking, her own fears. What we all have in any given moment is the choice to take or leave what others say to us. I’m not sure if you realise, but you can not change or control what others will say to you. But you can control what you choose to take on.

“The only thing we can control in our life is our reactions.”

We don’t have to take as truth what other’s say to us. We certainly don’t need to carry anything someone said to us for 30-40 years. Someone who I love told me I wasn’t smart enough to be a vet when I was 13. I didn’t realise then that I could take or leave that comment, and I took that as truth until I was 43.. when I realised that I was holding on to a truth that didn’t exist and isn’t real. Who we are is not set in stone. We are all born resilient, confident, and have the potential to live any life we want. The only thing that gets in the way is thought.. thought that looks real and true to us. But it is not. Thought is vaporous energy that left alone will leave us as quickly as it has arrived.

The problem is that when you’re vulnerable and 13, it is hard to see this truth. I didn’t learn this truth about mind until I was 43. Thankfully I did, and I continually now point my own children to this truth. But until we know this, we are hugely susceptible to what other’s think and say about us. We are hardwired to want to fit in and be a part of a community. Which is why so many of us grow up with innocent misunderstandings of who we are and what we will become. I encourage you to see there is huge space in that.. it’s not concrete, and chances are you are not who you think you are at all. And your children are not who you think they are too.

As adults we have a responsibility to hold space between a stimulus and our response to it. We should allow ourselves a pause before we speak when we are confronted with anything, but especially when young children are present. Here is what I wrote on this topic in a blog a year or so ago – language around children on dieting.

“This is the most important post I’ve written. It’s a big topic, and I will write more in the future. Today though, the focus is on our language around children (and people in general).

What we say and do in front of our children has a huge affect on them. If we as a mum stand in front of a mirror and cannot love the person staring back at us, how can we expect our children too?

I do not want my daughter to ever not accept that person staring back at her, and it is my job to make sure that never happens. While I also believe our culture projects an unattainable level of beauty, I can’t change this. All I can focus on is making sure I don’t project my own insecurities about my body on to my children. And if we all do that as mum’s, then we will be going a long way to making changes.

Some statistics:

1. Restrictive Dieting is a major cause of eating disorders, particularly binge eating.

2. 80% of teenage girls in the US have been on a diet by the time they’ve turned 10 years old.

3. Dieting is not an effective long term weight loss strategy, and it is especially dangerous in young people due to their brain development.

What is restrictive dieting?

Restrictive dieting means not giving your body enough food in an attempt to lose weight. It is different to understanding how food is metabolised in the body, and choosing to eat foods for growth & energy. When food is restricted enough, it puts the body in to a survival orientated state, where food becomes an extremely high priority. Hunger increases, metabolism drops, and the body does what it needs to do to ensure its survival. We cannot over ride these systems – which is why its important to understand them.

Things not to say around children (or anyone)

1. Do not make negative comments about your body & stop talking about your desire to lose weight. Losing weight is a great goal to have for health, but it shouldn’t be the focus. Your children love you and think you’re great, just the way you are. Your family and friends love you and think you’re great, just the way you are. You’re the only one that needs convincing of this.

2. Stop commenting on the weight of others. Don’t say who lost/gained weight, whose too thin or too fat. Teach children that we’re all different, and we’re all worthy. Teach them that people are about more than just their appearance.

Who you are is not your body. You are so much more than that.

3. Don’t say a certain food is too fattening or it will make you gain weight. Talk about food in a ‘nourishing’ or ‘not so nourishing’ capacity.

4. After you’ve eaten, don’t express feelings of guilt in front of the children. Don’t say I should have not eaten this or I should not have had that. If you made a poor choice, just move on and try to make a better choice next time.

5. Compliments – if someone tells you you look nice or gives you a compliment, don’t respond with something critical about your body, weight or size. Please just say ‘thank you.’

6. If someone offers you a dessert or treat, and you decide not to have it, say ‘no thank you’. You don’t need to give a weight related reason as to why you don’t want it. Don’t say you don’t want it because you want to lose weight.

“Teach your kids that making good choices is about health or energy. It is never about just looking good”

7. If you choose to eat something different to what your kids are eating, tell them its because you would rather eat something that makes you feel more energetic, or you just feel like something else right now.

8. In relation to exercise, it should be about feeling strong and feeling good. It’s shouldn’t be talked about in front of children as being about weight loss. Exercise shouldn’t be seen as a punishment for eating too many calories. It is something that should be done with joy.

9. If you’re at a child’s birthday party or a function and you are offered some dessert, if you want it, eat it and enjoy it. Don’t say yes and lament the whole time you’re eating it that its going to make you fat. If you don’t want it, say no thanks – but don’t add that its because your diet won’t allow it. Children pick up on these things.

10. Don’t ever make comments about children’s weight. Don’t compliment them for looking skinny, because you’re teaching them that skinny is to be praised, and they should aim to stay that way. This puts them at a higher risk for dieting as they mature and naturally start to put on weight (which, by the way, is a natural part of the hormonal teenage process). Obviously do not comment on a child that is over weight either. This is just hurtful & irresponsible (as it would be too an adult too).

All of this does not mean we can’t teach children about nutrition, and what habits will lead to a healthy life. Talk to them about nourishment, about eating to feel good, about playing outside for fun and to move their body just for the pure enjoyment of it. Do not for a second think that without all the weight and diet talk that your kids will end up not caring about their weight and become over weight. This just is not true. In fact, the opposite is true. Children who don’t diet are going to stay more in tune with their natural hunger & fullness hormonal signals, and their body can regulate itself.

If you as a parent can model a healthy, balanced and natural lifestyle, and avoid teaching children to diet and control their weight and to deprive themselves this will give them the best chance at maintaining a healthy weight for a lifetime.

If you suffer from emotional eating, or feel you have a dysfunctional relationship with food and yourself, please seek help to move through this. It is possible to change these habits, and I can help.”

Tracey can be contact at or

Much of this information has come from Kathryn Hansen