Toxic Diet Talk During Girl Scout Cookie Season May Increase Kids' Risk for Eating Disorders

Kids young as 5 learn entrepreneurship through Girl Scout cookie sales, but they may also be learning to worry about fat, calories, and weight. Here's what parents can do to protect their children.

Girl Scouts selling cookies.
Photo: Oona Hanson

Girl Scout cookie season is in full swing, and that means kids across the country are learning all about entrepreneurship—and about how much grown-ups think about counting calories, cutting carbs, and dieting. These messages are having a major impact on our kids.

"Thin Mints are my weakness—I can't have them in the house."

"These are so tempting, but I'm cutting carbs."

"I have to decide between buying Samoas and fitting into my jeans!"

Over the course of just one cookie-sale shift, young girls can hear dozens of food and body judgments from customers and passersby. With approximately 200 million boxes of cookies sold each year, that adds up to a lot of kids absorbing a lot of diet talk.

Modeling healthy eating habits is important, and that's why we want to make sure we're not inadvertently creating anxiety and stress around food by engaging in negative self-talk. More parents are open to having these conversations—at least if my own viral tweet on the topic is any indication—but all of us sometimes need a reminder to think before we speak.

It's been 10 years since I was a Girl Scout mom myself, but I still remember the discomfort of trying to ignore or deflect uncomfortable remarks. Having a child later develop an eating disorder—and now supporting other parents in that same position—has made me even more sensitive to the seemingly harmless comments that can contribute to a child's fraught relationship with food and their body.

Well-meaning customers mocking their own appearance or bemoaning their love of cookies have no idea they could be hurting the young people they intend to support. Even when said with self-deprecating humor, diet talk can send a dangerous message to kids, according to Sumner Brooks, M.P.H., RDN, co-author of How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence. She notes that "comments, even made as jokes, can be enough to trigger high anxiety and fear of certain foods." What's more, for some kids who may already be struggling with food phobias or body shame, Brooks adds, "hearing a joke like that could amplify those negative thoughts, reinforcing them as normal, important, and true."

When it comes to risky language about food and bodies, it's not only caloric restriction that kids can pick up from cookie booth conversations. When adults reference bingeing ("I might go eat that whole box right now!") or compensatory exercise ("I'll need to run an extra mile tomorrow!"), they can end up promoting disordered behaviors. The words we use can make a bigger impact on a child than we might expect. "It's so easy for adults to underestimate how literally kids take what is said around them," says Brooks.

Helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies has never been more important. With the dramatic rise in eating disorders during the pandemic, adolescents—of all genders—are already at heightened risk for developing these life-threatening illnesses. What most people don't know is that an eating disorder can start with something as simple as a new awareness of one's weight or the decision to cut out sweets. Even well-intended discussions about "healthy eating" can lead a young person down a decidedly unhealthy path. As Brooks notes, "It is often simple, everyday comments that can contribute to a child feeling hyper-conscious about their eating, weight, size, shape, or appearance."

Troop leaders and other volunteers aren't powerless, however. By talking to kids during and after cookie sales, parents can make a big difference. Brooks suggests caregivers "keep it simple" when countering harmful language, with reassuring words such as, "In our house we love cookies" or "Enjoying delicious food is never something to feel bad about." Having the perfect damage-control line in an awkward moment is less important than keeping the conversation going, to make sure kids know trusted adults care about what they're thinking and feeling.

Back at home, after the cases of Tagalongs are no longer stacked in the garage, Brooks recommends reminding kids that "bodies come in all sizes, shapes, and abilities" and sharing "that you don't believe dieting or restricting food to lose weight is helpful or healthy." Rather than judge the dieters, parents can model empathy by acknowledging the cultural pressures that contribute to the diet mindset. Even with younger kids, Brooks suggests caregivers can offer a compassionate reflection: "it's unfortunate some people think they need to feel bad for eating yummy foods." Parents can further protect their daughters from diet pressures by practicing intuitive eating and encouraging positive body image.

Most cookie customers enthusiastically support their local troops and delight in the annual sale. And a single off-hand comment is unlikely to catalyze an eating disorder. But the cookie-sale experience creates an opportunity for all of us to pay special attention to the diet messages our children receive from the culture.

Girl Scout cookie sales are designed to help develop financial literacy, leadership skills, and business experience. With the support of caring adults, scouts can also build self-confidence in their eating and body image. I can't think of anything sweeter.

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