Grandma's counting calories. Grandpa's marveling at your kid's meals. How can parents push back on diet culture messaging?
“That’s enough food to feed 10 people. He can eat that much?” When Allison Schweiger’s father lobbed that comment at her 4-year-old, Henry, she froze. Her son, who is tall for his age and eats a lot of food to fuel his high-energy antics, didn’t seem to notice the remark at the time. Schweiger did, though. It immediately dug up a painful memory of her father commenting on her own food intake when she was pregnant with Henry.
“He does eat a lot. He can eat an entire pint of blueberries or strawberries in one sitting,” she says of her son.
But she’s not concerned about her son's eating; what she is concerned about is the family tradition of criticizing weight and food intake. Schweiger’s grandmother was known for commenting on her daughter-in-law’s weight and even made comments about Scheweiger’s weight as a kid, though her parents hid those comments from her at the time. Since Schweiger’s mother struggled with disordered eating, her mother-in-law’s comments were particularly damaging. Schweiger desperately wants to end the family cycle of commenting on food and eating habits, before her son starts to absorb those messages.
Grandparents have developed a bit of a reputation as zealous advice-givers on topics ranging from clothing to school to food. While grandparents often have parenting experience and wisdom to share, there are many times when it crosses a line — and commenting on a grandchild’s weight and food choices is one of those times. A popular Instagram reel by registered dietitian and food educator Kacie Barnes depicts a grandmother reprimanding her daughter for the “junk” she feeds her kids. The comments are rife with parents sharing similar situations, including one grandparent who asked if “low-fat formula” existed for a chunky 5-month-old.
How do parents respond to these comments? Just as important, how do parents understand why they are occurring in the first place?
Where does the criticism come from?
“It is important to understand that they are victims of the same system in some ways,” says Virginia Sole-Smith. As a writer who covers anti-fat bias and diet culture, she’s spent a lot of time examining the inherited nature of body shaming. “Folks who are in their 60s and 70s have lived through that many more decades of diet culture, that many more toxic changing messages about which foods you can eat.” She uses the example of eggs, which older generations were conditioned to believe were terrible for them. “That is not the advice given anymore, but they can't let it go. Then they pile on the new advice and their list of ‘safe’ foods gets more and more rigid.”
In her upcoming book Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture and her Substack, Burnt Toast, Sole-Smith examines the cultural messaging around food and diet that persists through generations. Like in Schweiger’s family, it often spills down from grandparents to parents, to today’s kids. When these comments pop up, Sole-Smith urges parents to focus much more on their child’s feelings than the offending adult’s. She always wants her kids, and others, to walk away from each painful situation knowing their grown-ups stood up for them.
You might not ever be able to break your mom’s diet-obsessed chatter. It’s pretty hard to undo six or seven decades of negative messaging, says Jennifer Anderson, the registered dietitian and mom behind Kids Eat in Color, a popular parenting website and Instagram account. She says fielding food-shaming and body-shaming comments from well-meaning grandparents is a popular concern for her audience. “Parents tell me that grandparents often speak poorly about their own bodies and the bodies of their grandchildren,” Anderson tells Yahoo Life.
If you know your mom is going to list off how much she ate each week and her half-pound weight fluctuations at a family gathering, Anderson suggests cutting her off at the chase with a pre-party text or phone call.
"Let Grandma know what you would like, such as saying, ‘Hi Mom, Bianca and I are really looking forward to the party this weekend. We are helping her appreciate her body and we don’t want her to hear other people saying bad things about their body size. Can you tell me about your diet now so that you don’t need to mention it at the party?”’ she suggests. While you might also not want to hear about her diet, if you are able to lend a listening ear without too much harm to your own psyche, this preemptive move could save your child from another shaming moment.
A post shared by Jennifer Anderson MSPH, RDN | Kids Eat in Color (@kids.eat.in.color)
How to address grandparent comments in front of kids
Understanding why older generations are so hung up on weight gives us some compassion, but it doesn’t protect our kids. When a grandparent lets a hurtful snippet of criticism fly toward your child, it can be difficult to know just how to respond in that moment — especially if the comment stirs up hurts from your own childhood.
As a sort of script to keep in your back pocket, Sole-Smith suggests this: “We're not worried. We don't see their body as a problem. We trust their body. We're letting them figure it out.” The firm statements don’t leave much room for interpretation by either grandparents or the kids who are overhearing.
What about grandparents who, rather than body size or portion sizes, comment on “nutrition"? That itself is often just another front for diet culture, says Sole-Smith. Barring any medical condition that drastically alters what a child can eat, most kids are not lacking in nutrients. “Nutrition is going to work itself out, and that is very clearly supported by the research,” she says.
Many dietitians who work with families regularly are less focused on nutrition than variety. “So getting really in the weeds about how many servings of vegetables, or do they eat all their broccoli, or any of that stuff is counterproductive to the goal of raising kids who trust their bodies and who can eat a variety of foods,” says Sole-Smith. If a picky kid who only likes chocolate ice cream is willing to try a flavor with some chunks, that’s still a win in her book. They conquered food anxiety related to texture and new tastes, which helps when it’s time to try a new vegetable or dinner recipe, too.
The idea that experimenting with ice cream could lead to a new appreciation for fresh radishes will absolutely feel like a leap to most grandparents, says Anderson. “Some grandparents say, ‘Why are you letting her eat dessert?’ and say bad things about foods that are high in calories, sweet foods or other foods that the wider diet culture calls ‘bad.’” They’ve never heard anything other than negativity about those types of foods.
Some grandparents might be open to learning and undoing the toxic diet culture they were raised in. Others might respect your wishes even if they disagree. And some are just not going to change, says Anderson. Preemptive conversation with your kid might help, such as, “Grandma is often silly about food — we know that calories just tell us how much energy is in a food, they aren’t bad. After the party, let's talk about what we heard Grandma say.”
In some situations, though, it might be best to pause relationships that are harmful to your kids. “Having a grandparent tell them there is something wrong with their body can create lasting damage to a child and their relationship with their body and food. Many parents decide this is a boundary they will uphold strongly and they may choose to limit contact with the grandparent until the grandparent agrees to end damaging comments,” says Anderson.
Ultimately, it’s up to today’s parents to raise eaters who have a healthier relationship with food, even if their grandparents never achieve that for themselves. The facts are on your side, says Sole-Smith.
“It’s really pushing them towards exactly what you don't want them to do, which is to be overly fixated on treats and resentful of vegetables," she says. "There is lots of research showing the more you push kids to finish their carrots before they can have dessert, the less they like carrots and the more they want dessert.”
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