Teens were more likely to diet and use other unhealthy
measures to control their weight when their parents talked to them about losing
weight or the importance of being thin, in a new study.
Conversely, family conversations about healthy eating that
did not involve the topic of weight were linked to fewer unhealthy behaviours,
such as laxative use and skipping meals -- especially among heavier adolescents.
to (have) conversations that focus on healthy eating as a cause for healthy
bodies and strong bones, rather than a cause for weight and size," said
Jerica Berge, who led the new study at the University of Minnesota Medical
School in Minneapolis.
Past studies have shown that being told to diet or being
teased about weight by a parent is harmful to children, she said. But that
still leaves the question of what families who genuinely want to help an
overweight child should be talking about.
What do I say?
"They would always ask me, 'What do I say to my kid?'"
Berge told Reuters Health. She and her colleagues surveyed 2 800 racially and
socioeconomically diverse middle and high school students and one or both of
their parents about food, weight and related conversations.
Twenty-eight percent of mothers of normal-weight teens said
they'd talked about healthy eating with their child, and 33% said they'd had
conversations about weight or the need to lose weight. That compared to 15% of
mothers who talked solely about healthy eating with their overweight teens and
60% who discussed losing weight.
Rates were similar for conversations initiated by fathers.
The researchers found that dieting and unhealthy eating patterns were more
common among both normal weight and overweight children of parents who focused
For example, 64% of talked
overweight teens whose mothers about weight and weight loss had used worrisome
weight-control behaviours. That compared to 41% when family discussions were
only about healthy eating and 53% when mothers didn't discuss food or weight at
Likewise, 39% of normal weight children whose mothers
brought up weight had used unhealthy behaviours, compared to 30% of those with
mothers who emphasised being healthy, Berge's team reported Monday in JAMA
Pediatrics. "If a child is concerned about their weight and they want to
talk about their weight, you want to have an open conversation with them,"
said Alison Field, who studies weight and unhealthy eating at Boston Children's
Hospital but wasn't involved in the new research.
However to have that
talk with a kid who doesn't really want to discuss weight probably won't be
helpful, she told Reuters Health. Because the surveys represent a single point
in time, Berge and her colleagues couldn't determine whether family
conversations or a teen's dieting and unhealthy weight-control behaviours came
Field said future studies will ideally follow teens who
don't engage in any unhealthy weight-related behaviours to see how family talks
about food affect who does and doesn't start. Still, the researchers said, the
findings suggest parents should stay away from conversations that focus on
losing weight and being thin -- and talk about the general importance of healthy
"Healthy eating conversations are not going to be
harmful, and they may be helpful," Field said."That to me is a
positive message for parents who have an overweight kid and are struggling
because they don't know what to do," Berge added. "The best thing
they can do is focus on a healthy message."