Are you the grandparents of the kids pushing the messages about diet culture? How parents can push back

Do grandma and grandpa constantly comment on what your child eats?  (Photo: Getty)

Do grandma and grandpa constantly comment on what your child eats? (Photo: Getty)

“This is enough food to feed 10 people. Can he eat that much? When Allison Schweiger’s father hurled that comment at his 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 her remark at the time. Schweiger did, though. She immediately brought up a painful memory of her father commenting on her Own food intake when she was pregnant with Henry.

“Eats a lot. She can eat a whole pint of blueberries or strawberries in one sitting,” she says of her son.

But she’s not worried about her child’s food; what worries her 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 child, although her parents withheld those comments from her at the time. Since Schweiger’s mother struggled with disordered eating, her mother-in-law’s comments were especially damning. Schweiger is desperate to end the family cycle of comments about food and eating habits before her son starts absorbing those messages.

Grandparents developed quite a reputation as zealous counselors on topics ranging from clothing to school to food. While grandparents often have parenting experience and wisdom to share, there are many times 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 nutrition educator Kacie Barnes depicts a grandmother berating her daughter for the “junk” she feeds her children. The comments are filled with parents sharing similar situations, including a grandparent who asked if there was a “low-fat formula” for a large 5-month-old.

How do parents respond to these comments? Equally important, how do parents figure out why they occur in the first place?

Where do the criticisms come from?

“It’s important to understand that they are somehow victims of the same system,” says Virginia Sole-Smith. As a writer on anti-fat bias and diet culture, she has spent a lot of time examining the hereditary nature of body shaming. “People who are in their 60s and 70s have experienced many more decades of diet culture, many more messages of toxic change about what foods you can eat.” She uses the example of eggs, which older generations were conditioned to believe were terrible for them. “This is no longer the advice given, but they can’t let it go. So they pile on the new recommendations, and their list of “safe” foods gets more and more rigid.

In his next book Fat Talk: Parenthood in the Age of Diet Culture and its underpile, Burnt Toast, Sole-Smith examines the cultural message around food and diet that persists across generations. As in Schweiger’s family, she often transitions from grandparents to parents to today’s kids. When these comments appear, Sole-Smith urges parents to focus much more on their children’s feelings than those of the offending adult. She always wants her children and others to walk away from any painful situation knowing that their adults have stood up for them.

You may never be able to stop your mom’s diet-obsessed chatter. It’s pretty hard to undo six or seven decades of negative messaging, says Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietitian and mom behind Kids Eat in Color, a popular parenting website and Instagram account. She says fielding comments that shame the food and body of well-meaning grandparents is a popular concern for her audience. “Parents tell me that grandparents often badmouth their own bodies and their grandchildren’s bodies,” Anderson tells Yahoo Life.

If you know your mom will be listing how much she ate each week and her pound weight fluctuates during a family reunion, Anderson suggests breaking her chase with a text or phone call before the party.

“Let grandma know what you would like, for example by saying, ‘Hi Mum, Bianca and I are looking forward to the holiday this weekend. We are helping her appreciate her body and we don’t want her to hear other people say bad things about their body size. Can you tell me about your diet now so I don’t have to mention it at the party?” she suggests. While you might not even want to know about her diet, if you’re listening in without too much damage to your psyche, this preemptive move could save your child from yet another shameful moment.

How to respond to grandparents’ comments in front of children

Understanding why older generations are so stuck with weight gives us some compassion, but it doesn’t protect our children. When a grandparent lets an hurtful bit of criticism fly at your child, it can be hard to know how to respond in that moment, especially if the comment sparks wounds from your own childhood.

As a pocket script of sorts, 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 claims don’t leave much room for interpretation by either the grandparents or the kids who are listening.

What about grandparents who, rather than body size or portion sizes, comment on “nutrition”? This is often just another front for diet culture, Sole-Smith says. Barring any medical conditions that drastically alter what a child can eat, most children are not lacking in nutrients. “Nutrition will work on its own, and that’s clearly supported by research,” she says.

Many dietitians who work regularly with families are less focused on nutrition than variety. “So really getting into weeds about how many servings of vegetables, or they eat all of their broccoli, or whatever stuff like that is counterproductive to the goal of raising kids who trust their bodies and can eat a variety of foods,” says Sole-Smith. If a picky eater who only likes chocolate ice cream is willing to try a flavor with a few chunks, it’s still a win in her book. They’ve conquered food anxiety related to textures and new tastes, which also helps when it’s time to try a new vegetable or dinner recipe.

The idea that experimenting with ice cream could lead to a new appreciation for fresh radishes will absolutely seem like a leap for most grandparents, Anderson says. “Some grandparents say, ‘Why do you let her eat dessert?’ and saying mean things about high-calorie foods, sweet foods, or other foods that the wider diet culture calls “bad.” They have never heard anything but negativity about those types of foods.

Some grandparents might be open to learning about and undoing the toxic diet culture they grew up in. Others may respect your wishes even if they disagree. And some just won’t change, Anderson says. A preemptive conversation with your child might help, for example, “Grandma is often silly about food. We know calories only tell us how much energy is in a food—they’re not bad. After the party, we talk of what we heard from the grandmother”.

In some situations, however, it may be best to put the relationships that are harmful to your children on hold. “Having a grandparent tell them there is something wrong with their body can do permanent damage to a child and her relationship with her body and food. Many parents decide this is a limit they will strongly support and may choose to limit contact with the grandparent until the grandparent agrees to end the harmful comments,” says Anderson.

Ultimately, it falls to today’s parents to raise eaters who have a healthier relationship with food, even if their grandparents never reach for it themselves. The facts are on your side, says Sole-Smith.

“It’s really pushing them into exactly what you don’t want them to do, which is being overly fixated on treats and resentful of veggies,” she says. “There’s a lot of research showing the more you push kids to finish their carrots before they can eat candy, the less they like carrots and the more they want candy.”

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