Dieting, Brains, & Kids: What You Need To Know

Diet-mania is everywhere—The Biggest Loser is a huge hit with a giant scale, diet promotions bombard social media, and we still remember Oprah hauling a wagon full of chicken fat to illustrate her 67-pound weight loss years ago.

Oprah, like so many others dieters, gained that wagon of weight back. Why didn’t her original diet work? The answer has more to do with the power of her brain than the power of her will. In fact, research suggests people who lose weight on restrictive diets fire up their brain to cause gain weight.

Do diets cause weight gain?

In many cases, the answer is yes. When you restrict food and try to change the size of your body quickly, in essence, you pick a fight with your brain. Good luck. Biology ensures your brain is a most challenging opponent. It turns out that your brain already has an idea of what you should weigh, a setpoint.

You might disagree with your brain’s setpoint, but your brain doesn’t care. It does everything it can to get you to return to that place. Your brain has a built-in weight boomerang.

Blame your brain

When your body feels cold you reach for a sweater, right? Similarly, if your body is starving, you make a beeline for the fridge. As you should. Hunger, like thirst, is a biological response in which your brain tells your body what it needs. You need food! Of course, you get hangry when you’re hungry.

In addition to shouting messages of powerful hunger, your brain slows your metabolism to conserve energy when it’s up against restrictive dieting. No wonder it’s hard to lose weight. And to make matters worse, your brain may even instigate a binge. Now, that’s a nasty trick to play when you intended to lose weight.

Hello, yo-yo.

The dangers of diets for our kids

 Most young kids start off with an innate sense of intuitive eating. They eat when they’re hungry, stop when they are full, and move on. But what happens when a healthy weight teenager goes on a diet? The same biological cascade occurs as when an adult goes on a diet, and to make matters significantly worse; proper nutrition is interrupted at a time when the brain is still developing.

Consider these estimates from the Journal of Paediatrics of Child Health:

50% of teenage girls have tried a diet to change their body size.

25% of teenage boys have tried a diet to change their body size.


33% of teenage girls at a healthy weight have dieted to change their body size.

Why would a healthy weight teenager try to lose weight? The question is complicated, but perhaps the consumption of diet-mania, unrealistic beauty images and thin-ideals play a role. Prevalent unattainable impressions can lead to body dissatisfaction.

What’s the go-to step when a poor body image takes hold? You guessed it. Dieting. Then Hunger. Then the brain fuels cravings. You know what comes next. Overeating. Weight gain. Now we’re deeper into dissatisfaction leading to a poor body image. This vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting takes hold, a miserable trap, and destroys the innate sense of intuitive eating for our sons and daughters.

The only yo-yo a kid needs is the toy kind with a string. Do kids still have yo-yos? Is there an app for that? The point is, restrictive dieting does not usually work, can lead to binge eating, obesity, or other eating disorders. It’s a no-brainer.

What To Do?

Parents should encourage a healthy relationship between kids and the food on their plates. There is usually no need to tightly limit or regulate the amount of healthy food you serve your kids. Steer away from discussions about weight, and focus on the trifecta of health: nutritious food to make the brain happy, fun ways to move, and a good night’s sleep. If a child is overweight and needs help, talk to a professional about a healthy approach to nutrition.

 Adults should avoid restrictive dieting that leads to the starvation response. Eat real, fresh foods, as nature intended. Try to get back in touch with intuitive eating that responds to hunger cues as opposed to rules, and equally important for adults as kids, focus on adequate movement and sleep. If advised to lose weight, avoid the fad-diet-of-the-week and seek nutrition guidance from a professional.

The idea for adults is to end the body/brain fight, restore metabolism, and get off the restriction merry go round. That sounds nice, right? Now think of how helpful and essential it is for our kids to keep the body/brain peace without ever knowing the fight.


  1. Jennifer, this is so well written! You are amazing. I’m so appreciative to you and your husband for your commitment to this crucial message.


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