Conversations about weight are never easy, whether they’re between friends at the gym, or between physician and patient in a clinic office. These conversations can be especially delicate between a parent and an adolescent child. But with the high prevalence of weight-related problems among teens, many parents may feel a need to engage in a discussion about weight with their child, and they may wonder about the ramifications of such discussions.
Well, a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that talking about diets and weight loss with adolescents is less than productive.
WEIGHT & LIFESTYLE BEHAVIORS AMONG US ADOLESCENTS
Before we talk about what to say and what not to say, let’stake a look at some facts related to adolescent health. I’m not gonna lie — they aren’t so good.
According to a federal government study, just half of American youths get the recommended sixty or more minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, and less than one-third eat the recommended five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables. On average, children now spend more than seven hours per day in front of a screen.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that 18.4% of adolescents age 12–19 aren’t just overweight, but obese (2009 –2010), raising concerns for psycho-social well-being and physical health. In addition, a 2010 CDC survey described heart-healthy behaviors among U.S. adolescents as “alarmingly low.” As parents, we can encourage healthy lifestyle behaviors in our children that promote physical and psychological health, no matter their weight. At the same time, what we say and how we say it matters.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
According to the study published in Pediatrics, researchers found that mothers and fathers who discussed weight and dieting had adolescents who were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors, binge eating and dieting. Interestingly, fathers’ comments seemed especially powerful. Adolescents whose dads talked about weight loss and diets showed an even greater likelihood of engaging in unhealthy weight loss behaviors.
In a nutshell, parent conversations focused on weight/size are associated with increased risk for disordered eating behaviors among adolescents. So, parents would do best to avoid conversations with their teen children that focus on weight or onlosing weight, particularly with teens who are overweight or obese.
WHAT TO SAY
Instead of focusing on weight, parents can encourage (and model) healthy lifestyle behaviors, including good eating and physical activity. The study showed that overweight or obese adolescents whose mothers engaged in conversations focused on healthy eating were less likely to use unhealthy weight control behaviors. Parents can promote healthy food choices by maintaining a home environment stocked with fruits and vegetables, cheese and yogurt, whole grains and lean sources of protein, and a few healthier treats such as frozen fruit bars.
Tempting snack foods that are high in sugar and fat can be limited at home. Instead, go out for ice cream, and save hot dogs and nachos for the ballpark. Parents can also encourage and participate together in physical activities that are enjoyable and offer variety. Bikeriding, scootering, swimming, basketball, hiking, and playing tag are just a few examples.
Steer clear of weight talk with your adolescent child. Instead, engage in positive conversations that focus on healthy eating and physical activity. As for dads, the authors suggest they avoid any form of weight-related conversations altogether!
Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.