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This article was contributed by Dove Self-Esteem Project

The Dove Self-Esteem Project provides teachers, family workers and parents with free resources to help raise young people's body confidence and self-esteem. Teachers and professionals can download free resources to deliver self-esteem workshops to young people.

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How diet affects self-esteem

A Woman biting an apple looking out a window

Airbrushed, edited online images can give young people an unrealistic idea of how they ought to look. As a result, teenagers may diet in an effort to look more like the pictures of celebs and influencers that they see online. This isn’t only something that affects girls: research by Credos has found that 1:10 secondary schoolboys are skipping meals in an attempt to change their body shape.

Dieting affects young people’s mental health. A report in the British Journal of Psychiatry notes that missing meals can lead to depression and mental ill-health. Young people can consequently get caught in a vicious circle: low self-esteem leads to dieting, which leads to depression, which leads back to low self-esteem and more dieting. Dove’s self-esteem project is designed to attack this problem at the root, with ideas to help young people think more positively about themselves and break the yo-yo dieting cycle.

Media is often unrealistic

Banning social media isn’t practical, and may well backfire. Even if you could do it, you still couldn’t protect your child from all the unrealistic images on posters, in magazines and on television. And trying to ban social media may well make your child feel you don’t understand how their friendships work and that you’re trying to undermine them.

It’s much better to talk about how and why the images all around us are unrealistic, especially the ones we’re bombarded with on social media platforms. You can download free resources to help in Dove’s Uniquely Me parents’ guide. Talk to your teenager about how eating a varied and balanced diet improves not only your body (your hair, skin and weight) but also your mood - your energy levels and wellbeing.

What is a good diet anyway?

You might want to start by asking your child about their attitudes toward food. What do they like and dislike? Why do they think that is? What are their friends’ attitudes toward food? How healthy do they think they are? 

It’s important not to talk about ‘being good’ when you discuss eating. Labelling some foods ‘good’ and others ‘bad’ is unhelpful. As psychologist Susie Orbach points out in Dove’s Uniquely Me parents’ guide, it’s very often also wrong. Low-fat foods are frequently laden with sugar and salt. The wellness aisles of supermarkets can be stacked with high-sugar snack bars and calorific drinks.

Talk to your child about the ‘clean eating’ diets that are promoted online. Why are people so judgemental about food? Should eating be so stressful? Once you start treating food as the enemy and denying yourself, human nature being what it is you promptly start craving it. There’s nothing as tempting as something that’s forbidden - which is why people find themselves in a cycle of dieting and bingeing.

Talk about pleasure. What do they love to eat? Could they be more adventurous, and try different things? (You can help enormously here, by trying different things yourself.) Research shows that tastes aren’t genetic - they’re to do with what’s familiar and what feels like love. And they can change, even late in life.

Discuss with them whether the old idea of everything in moderation is still relevant (including moderation, of course - everyone’s allowed a feast now and then).

Talk about the way we eat. Human beings have more leisure time than ever before, but it gets taken up (partly by looking at all those images of unrealistically thin celebs online!) It’s too easy to snatch up an absent-minded snack. As a very wise man once said, the key to dieting is: ‘Eat food. Mostly vegetables.’ 

By focusing on reduction (maybe 10 per cent less?) rather than good food/bad food, you hand control to your child. If teenagers eat what they love in moderation, and take the time to do it, they are much more likely to have a healthy body, a healthy relationship to food, and a more positive outlook on the world.

The Dove Self-Esteem Project offers teachers and professionals a series of workshops and resources with practical activities to help boost children’s self-esteem. Download them for free here.

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‘Uniquely Me’ is packed with much more advice and practical activities to help nurture children’s body confidence and self-esteem. It contains expert advice from Dove Self-Esteem Project global experts from the fields of psychology, body image, self-esteem, eating disorders and media representation to create a resource for parents that is focused on advice and action.

Download your free ‘Uniquely Me’ parent guide

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