Lately, a string of news reports recommend what seems like straightforward advice: leave weight out of health-related conversations with your child. I agree with this, to a point. It’s beneficial not to harp on a child’s weight and to avoid commenting on weight in general. In other words, don’t engage in what researchers call “weight talk.” Rather, focus on healthy habits and the importance of taking care of one’s body. A 2016 report from The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) puts it this way:
Several studies have found that parental weight talk, whether it involves encouraging their children to diet or talking about their own dieting, is linked to overweight…However, if the focus of the conversation was only on healthful eating behaviors, overweight adolescents were less likely to diet and use unhealthy weight control practices.
From no weight talk to a taboo subject
Somehow the no-weight talk message has morphed into a weight-as-a-taboo mantra for families, doing its own share of harm. That’s because, whether we like it or not, children are growing up in a world with anti-fat attitudes and a media that idealizes being thin. So even if a parent avoids weight talk, their child may see, read, and experience something different. According to the AAP report, half of teenage girls and one-quarter of boys are dissatisfied with their bodies. Body dissatisfaction increases the risk of unhealthy weight control practices such as dieting, something half of adolescent girls and a third of boys have tried (note: it’s about the same number of adolescents who feel bad about their bodies).
Researchers have also found that a good portion of dieting adolescents aren’t even overweight according to BMI standards. In one study, normal-weight adolescent girls who perceived themselves as overweight were 30 percent more likely to become obese twelve years later. The boys were 89 percent more likely to become obese in adulthood. Why are adolescents who feel fat more likely to gain weight? Because, researchers believe, they are more likely to participate in unhealthy weight control practices like extreme dieting.
We are told repeatedly that poor eating habits are responsible for the obesity epidemic but dieting is a real, albeit underrepresented, risk factor. Defined by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) as “caloric restriction with the goal of weight loss” dieting has been found to increase the risk of both obesity and eating disorders. The AAP report states that: “These findings and others suggest that dieting is counterproductive to weight management efforts. Dieting also can predispose to eating disorders.”
How dieting backfires in children
Why does dieting have this effect? First, food restriction — the attempt to eliminate palatable foods — encourages the brain to focus even more on tasty foods in the environment. Second, weight loss lowers metabolic rate not just during weight loss but afterward. When a teenager returns to pre-dieting eating levels, a lower metabolic rate can raise her risk of future weight gain. And last is something researchers call “fat overshooting.” When weight is regained after loss, more fat is accumulated even when the person weighs the same as they did prior to losing weight. Fat overshooting is more problematic in leaner individuals.
And we can’t forget the fact that children are growing, potentially worsening these effects. For example, skipping meals during the second largest growth spurt — puberty — may result in unrelenting hunger that brings about out-of-control eating.
Last but not least: weight stigma
Even if a child is lucky enough to avoid body dissatisfaction and dieting, there’s still the problem of weight stigma. Did you know that more than 90 percent of adolescents say they have witnessed a peer being bullied due to their weight? Body weight is a more common reason for bullying than race, religion, or sexual orientation. According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, weight stigma increases the risk of depression, poor body image, suicidal thoughts, and unhealthy habits such as dieting and sedentary behaviors. And here’s the kicker: weight stigma increases the likelihood someone will stay obese or gain weight over time.
Given this reality, how can we not check in with our kids to help support and guide them? How do we know they are on the right track just because we don’t engage in weight talk? This is a question I kept asking myself while researching How to Raise a Mindful Eater. And I found there are people out there doing good work that we parents can learn a great deal from.
Tracy Tylka, Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University, is one of those people. Although we’ve known about the negative effects of body dissatisfaction, she’s studying what happens when the opposite happens: body appreciation. According to Tylka, the definition of body appreciation is “holding favorable opinions toward the body regardless of its appearance, accepting the body along with its deviations from societal beauty ideals, respecting the body by attending to its needs and engaging in healthy behaviors, and protecting the body by rejecting unrealistic media appearance ideals.” Research suggests a positive body image is protective against negative media exposure and is linked to better self esteem, well-being, and less dieting and more physical activity.
Kathy Kater, psychotherapist, and author of Healthy Bodies: Teaching Kids What They Need to Know, created The Healthy Body Image Curriculum to decrease the risk of eating disorders in fourth through sixth graders. The idea is to reach children before the tough middle school years when body dissatisfaction typically takes root. Her curriculum centers on helping kids understand how their bodies develop, what they can change (healthy habits), and what they cannot change (size, shape, and hunger). It also teaches children how to critically think about size issues, the media’s Thin Ideal, and their value beyond appearance.
Start a dialogue
Every parent needs to have open and honest conversations with their kids about how they feel about their weight, size, and shape, and those surrounding them. We can encourage our children to appreciate their bodies, avoid judging others, and learn what’s feeds good health, and what doesn’t. And we may even be brave enough to share our own challenges, as almost everyone is affected by our weight-focused society.
Sweeping weight under the rug by making it a taboo subject will only strengthen its stronghold on young people. Don’t our kids deserve a better future than that?
For more on how to talk to kids about weight, shape, and size see my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food