How Diet Culture Impacted My Family

Diet culture blog cover

Blog post by Debra Buchanan


I was very careful not to use the word, ‘diet’, as my three children, now spanning early teens through age 20, were growing up. I strongly felt that for them to have a healthy relationship with food, we should focus on how to “eat healthy” as opposed to what felt like an archaic concept, to “diet”. (author’s note: I don’t usually write with so many quotation marks, however, I felt it important to call out the diet culture buzz words used throughout this post.)

How I Began my Relationship with Diet Culture

A couple of years before my oldest was born, I experienced health issues and through the recommendation of one of my medical practitioners, made an appointment with a Certified Nutrition Specialist. I was in a straight size body and had never concerned myself with what or when I ate. The nutritionist recommended a strict, calorie-restricted, food-specific, “wellness plan” that resulted in significant weight loss. This was the beginning of my engagement with “health and wellness”, which, from here on out, let’s call it what it is: diet culture. I spent countless hours reading about the dangers of processed food, sugar, and empty carbohydrates. With the nutritionist’s help, I shifted what I ate to organic foods and made sure to eat protein with each meal. I measured and weighed my portions. When I had my first child soon after, I was dedicated to doing the “right” thing when it came to their relationship with food. Since I had quit my corporate job to stay home with them, I had time to dedicate to things like making baby food and carefully introducing each new food on a very specific, nutritionist-provided, schedule. I was proud of the fact that my oldest did not taste “processed sugar” until she took a bite of cake on her first birthday.

Diet Culture’s Influence on the Family

My engagement with diet culture continued for a strong 16+ years during which time, my second and third child were born. As a family, we ate “balanced” meals, limited “processed food”, valued vegetable-eating, and intended to teach the negative health impacts of too much sugar in one’s day. These behaviors were encouraged by my doctors (as I continued to chase “health and wellness”), dietitians, and pediatricians. At every annual well-child visit the pediatrician asked a short series of questions, one of which was, “Do you drink juice?” We (the kids and I) learned quickly to point out that, yes, we “drink orange juice but only with breakfast.” Without that qualifier, a mini lecture regarding sugary beverages inevitably followed.

Kids and Sugar

Most of our household food rules were around sugar. I suppose I was quite convinced that, given complete autonomy to follow their eating cues, children would eat sugar, and only sugar, for weeks on end. I implemented what I thought were helpful and reasonable guidelines about candy. We kept candy in an unreachable cupboard, so it wasn’t constantly in sight. On Fridays, the kids could pack those treats in their lunchboxes. We rationed Halloween candy but then gave them free reign to do whatever they wanted with their limited number of pieces (the result was, I’ve now learned, many of their friends gave them their extra Halloween candy. Aren’t friends just the best?). We rewarded chores with coveted bowls of ice cream at the end of the week.


About three and a half years ago, I started the long process of unlearning diet culture. After so many years of engaging in disordered eating, my process of unlearning has been gradual, but I’m working to forge a new relationship with food and my body. I reached out for professional help. The incredible Maggie Perkins, MS, RD, LDN, has helped me in many ways, one of which is in understanding what the research actually says about things like sugar. As I unlearned, our house rules about food started to recede. We started keeping a large variety of food in the house, available to all. We use language like, “What does your body say it needs right now?” With older kids, I admit this is met with some amount of humor, but the underlying message is strong and unwavering.

Results of Unlearning

The freedom we feel around food is such a relief. Overall, we collectively think about food so much less. It sounds simple, but feels profound for it to be a nonissue. We do things like honor cravings and have fun trying to think of what we can have in the house that we previously might have chosen to avoid. Food such as chocolate, cookies, and chips? Well, they sit on our shelves eons longer than they did when we were more restrictive. In fact, the other day, I shockingly had to discard a partially eaten bag of chips that had gone stale. We’ve all noticed that food that might have held some excitement in the past is now a bit boring. In response, we are leaning into the many ways food can bring us joy, comfort, and connection, such as cooking foods I remember from my childhood.

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Recently, I felt I had some additional work to do to unravel what I had instituted with such conviction years earlier. I asked the kids to try to remember what they could about our household food restriction and rules. It was immediately clear they would not struggle to make a list, so I followed up with individual conversations. These conversations were not easy, but my kids were brave and honest in their feedback and in describing the impact diet culture myths, and my engagement in them, had on them. One said, “I didn’t know how to regulate my own eating without you telling me.” Another talked about sneaking sweets whenever given the opportunity and said they, “had zero impulse control when it came to sugar.” We are all working to unlearn. A question to those reading, if you’ve made it this far: No matter the age of the child, if now isn’t the right time to give them full autonomy over what they eat, when is the right time? 


And so yes, these were difficult conversations. Still, I believe there is value in holding oneself accountable to the people with whom we share this journey, children or not. We can model the very uncomfortable yet very human experience of making mistakes. We can go back and say I’m sorry. I’m sorry something I believed in the past was not true and had real impacts on you. And in honor of my three, I will end with this. Your body is good. You can trust it. The truth is your body knows deeply and intuitively what it needs. It always has and it always will.




Debra Buchanan is a Body Liberation Ambassador with Current Wellness. She lives in Raleigh with her spouse and three children. During the day, Debra is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Wake Tech Community College. She enjoys hiking, reading, and tending to her garden in her spare time. 

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