News

Diets Aren't the Solution to Your Child's COVID Weight Gain, Experts Say

father and son cooking together

 Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Though it may sound counterintuitive, research has shown that dieting can lead to a lifelong battle with obesity and/or disordered eating.
  • Instead of putting their children on a diet, parents should try to encourage and model healthy eating that does not use problematic language or dieting behaviors.
  • Children should engage in joyful movement instead of trying to control their weight through exercise.

COVID-19 has uprooted any semblance of normalcy in 2020. With school and sports being canceled, and stress being at an all-time high, many parents have been watching their children's weight creep up, just like their own. It is tempting to want to take back control, but as with adults, going on a diet can backfire.

Diets are not always effective. Experts have said that 80-95% of dieters will gain what they lost, and for some, they will gain more. Studies also show that unhealthy dieting practices can lead to eating disorders and even obesity.

Despite these troubling statistics, many people will use misguided approaches, like fad diets, in an attempt to lose the weight they gained during quarantine, and some may impose these weight-loss expectations on their children.

Promoting Diet Culture Sends the Wrong Message to Kids

Philadelphia-based integrative clinical nutritionist Cristina Hoyt Alvarez, MS feels that there is never a reason to put your child on a diet. “As a parent, I understand the dilemma that comes up with trying to encourage your child to eat in a way that helps with their long term health and development. But as a nutritionist, I know that diets are dangerous. They set the stage for the child to have a long-term troubling relationship with food and their body. If they're susceptible, it is also the leading cause of eating disorders.”

One reason for this risk is that children lose the ability to trust their bodies as they navigate food rules. Hoyt Alvarez notes that children are naturally intuitive about their food needs, and diets challenge that. “This can create a mentality of-and sometimes actual-food scarcity that sets them up for a very difficult food relationship in the future. Children will start hiding food, bingeing when they're allowed to enjoy a forbidden food, and become obsessed with the off-limits foods.”

Cristina Hoyt Alvarez, Integrative Clinical Nutritionist

As a nutritionist, I know that diets are dangerous. They set the stage for the child to have a long term troubling relationship with food and their body.

— Cristina Hoyt Alvarez, Integrative Clinical Nutritionist

Dangers of Restriction

A famous example of the effects of restriction is the Minnesota Starvation Project from 2005. 36 men had their calories restricted greatly, and researchers noticed changes in their personalities, and all of them developed obsessions and food rituals.

Not only could the restriction lead to obsession, but it can also reinforce the notion that their health and worth are determined by their size, and that it must be controlled by their food. Instead of combating the weight gain caused by sheltering in place, Hoyt Alvarez recommends adding healthy food and behaviors, instead of focusing on what to take away.

“If you want more fruits and vegetables, then start to add them into meals instead of focusing on what you don't want them to eat. For example, if you want your child to eat less highly processed snacks, like cookies, instead of insisting that they can no longer have them, focus on adding in the desired foods into what they're already doing. If their normal snack has been cookies with milk, next time offer cookies alongside carrots and hummus (as an example). When you focus on what you want to add, you allow for less fighting over food and it takes away the ‘forbidden’ food mentality. This also allows the process to be child-led and not forced.”

Model Healthy Habits for Your Children

Nicole Marquis is the founder of the HipCityVeg chain and other plant-based restaurants, and she is always commended for how well her 3-year-old son Lukas eats. She explains, “I know that children develop food preferences and it can be hard to feed them well-balanced meals, and I’ve probably been luckier on that front.” Marquis and her son are vegans, and she has a severe nut allergy. Lukas loves vegetables and requests healthier foods. 

What has helped Marquis raise a healthy eater has been making food fun, easy, and fresh.”I have a chef’s hat and apron, and Lukas will stand on the stool next to me and we’ll cook together. I also have to keep things easy because I’m a working single mom. If I get pushback about something, I don’t give up, I just try different seasonings and preparations.” Marquis buys frozen organic mixed veggies and gives them fun names. Top it with vegan butter and salt, and Lukas can eat a whole bowl. One of his favorite snacks is a green smoothie that Marquis calls the BFG.

BFG (blended fruits and greens) green smoothie recipe

8 oz ice water

2 bananas (preferably frozen)

Handful of leafy greens (organic spinach, kale, Swiss chard, etc.)

½ green apple

1 peeled orange or 1 cup of diced pineapple

Blend for 1 minute until smooth

Marquis believes eating with her son has been a valuable tool for instilling healthy habits, and they typically eat the same meal. Hoyt Alvarez encourages this, but cautions parents to examine their own habits and beliefs to ensure that they are not enforcing dieting beliefs or restricting food. “As a parent, we model behavior to our child.” Marquis and her son just happen to be vegan, but being vegan is a personal choice and isn't necessary when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet. But adding more fruits and veggies to your child's diet is universally beneficial.

Avoid Adult Pitfalls

Physical therapist Kimberly Howell, PT, DPT, OCS of Odyssey Physical Therapy finds herself trying to correct the problematic beliefs of clients, which can negatively impact their children. As far as movement is concerned, she finds that parents often deal with the same reactionary pitfalls when trying to help their children lose weight.

“I believe creating a healthy relationship with food and exercise begins with the parents. One of the biggest mistakes adults make with exercise is using it as a form of punishment instead of seeing exercise as a wellness strategy. How we treat our bodies and what we put into our bodies can have such a profound effect on our health.”

Instead of punishment, adults should view exercise as a preventive tool and one that promotes overall health. Howell encourages clients to recognize that there are many components to health, outside of the number on the scale.

Kimberly Howell, PT, DPT, OCS

I believe creating a healthy relationship with food and exercise begins with the parents. One of the biggest mistakes adults make with exercise is using it as a form of punishment instead of seeing exercise as a wellness strategy. How we treat our bodies and what we put into our bodies can have such a profound effect on our health.

— Kimberly Howell, PT, DPT, OCS

Be Wary of the Fatphobia Mentality

In a society that expects perfection on so many levels, so many of us have fallen into the trap of believing that bigger bodies are unhealthy, and that's just not true. Many physicians agree BMI is an outdated measure of health, and everyone's bodies are different, what matters is how an individual feels. Encouraging behaviors that promote an overall healthy lifestyle will help your child be their best self, no matter what their size.

Willow Jarosh, MS, RD, warns parents of the negative connotations associated with weight gain, and suggests a shift in perspective. "The result of being more active and eating more regular meals would be feeling good, not body size changes," says Jarosh. "If we look to make our children's bodies smaller, rather than support sustainable healthful habits that they enjoy and that help them feel good, then we are sending them the message that smaller bodies are better. And that's not health, it's fatphobia."

Exercise Should Look Like Playtime

For children, it's important that exercise is fun and feels like playtime. "I prefer that children engage in more play-based or sports-based activity instead of the exercise we typically do as adults. We generally encourage about an hour of physical activity over the course of the day. If you notice your child isn’t meeting these recommendations, help them make changes. If your child expresses an interest in a particular type of activity, foster it," says Howell.

For some children who have gotten used to being sedentary or who have gained weight, movement may be a struggle. For those children, Harrow recommends: “If you notice your child is more fatigued or short of breath with light activity, try to focus on slowly building up their tolerance to time and intensity. Try to engage in exercise every day with your child.”

A plan is not really necessary, but if a parent is set on creating one, Harrow suggests making sure that it is age-appropriate for time, demand, and activity. “Older children may engage in longer play-based activity, but younger children may need shorter durations with a higher frequency. As a general rule of thumb across all age spans, I like to try and create different games and keep things varied. For example, playing a game of tag or creating an obstacle course can go a long way.”

This could be an activity that everyone participates in, since children are not able to play with their peers because of social distancing. Bike riding, jumping rope, and hiking could be fun ways to get your child moving. 

What This Means for You

Parents can help create a culture of health for their children without setting them up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting. It will take courage, however, and will work when they challenge their own beliefs and learn to enjoy healthy food and joyful movement as a family. 

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Why People Diet, Lose Weight and Gain It All Back. October 1, 2019.

  2. Siahpush M, Tibbits M, Shaikh RA, Singh GK, Sikora kessler A, Huang TT. Dieting Increases the Likelihood of Subsequent Obesity and BMI Gain: Results from a Prospective Study of an Australian National Sample. Int J Behav Med. 2015;22(5):662-71. doi:10.1007/s12529-015-9463-5

  3. Kalm LM, Semba RD. They starved so that others be better fed: remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota experiment. J Nutr. 2005;135(6):1347-52. doi:10.1093/jn/135.6.1347

  4. Sharps M, Robinson E. Encouraging children to eat more fruit and vegetables: Health vs. descriptive social norm-based messages. Appetite. 2016;100:18-25. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.01.031

  5. Ryan AS. Exercise in aging: its important role in mortality, obesity and insulin resistance. Aging health. 2010;6(5):551-563. doi:10.2217/ahe.10.46

  6. Shmerling RH. Harvard Health Publishing. How useful is the body mass index (BMI)?. March 30, 2016.

  7. Bento G, Dias G. The importance of outdoor play for young children's healthy development. Porto Biomed J. 2017;2(5):157-160. doi:10.1016/j.pbj.2017.03.003

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do children need?. Updated September 17, 2020.

  9. Contreras RE, Schriever SC, Pfluger PT. Physiological and Epigenetic Features of Yoyo Dieting and Weight Control. Front Genet. 2019;10:1015. doi:10.3389/fgene.2019.01015