Why Parents Should Not Tell Their Kids To Lose Weight

On its health and wellness blog, The New York Times tackles the difficult question of whether parents should say anything to an overweight child about their weight. 

Either decision seems to carry a potential negative outcome, as The Times points out:

"Say something, and [parents] risk shaming a child or worse, triggering an eating disorder. Say nothing, and they worry they’re missing an opportunity to help their child with what could become a serious long-term health problem." 

Thankfully, parents can turn to a new study published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders, which offers some much-needed guidance on the topic. According to The Times, the main takeaway from the report is this: 

"Don’t make comments about a child’s weight."

As The Times reports, "Comments about a child’s weight are often predictors of unhealthy dieting behaviors, binge eating and other eating disorders, and may inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about weight that children internalize."

In the study, more than 500 women in their 20s to early 30s were asked about their body image, as well as asked to recall the frequency of their parents making comments on their weight.

The researchers found that those comments could affect women for years afterward, "contributing to a young woman’s chronic dissatisfaction with her body – even if she is not overweight." 

This dissatisfaction with their bodies manifested itself in women being more likely to think they need to lose 10 or 20 pounds even if they didn't, as The Times notes.  

Here are four other major insights from the article:

  1. Dr. Brian Wansink, the study's lead author and director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, said that frequency of the comments wasn't much of a factor. “A few comments were the same as commenting all the time. It seems to make a profound impression,” he said.
  2. Comments from family members had even stronger effects than comments made by unrelated people.
  3. Several studies have found that when parents encourage overweight teenagers to diet, the teenagers are at higher risk of lower self-esteem, depression and of being overweight five years later.
  4.  When parents talked to their teens about losing weight, teenagers were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eat. 

So how can parents encourage children to maintain a healthy body weight and still help them maintain healthy self-esteem?

As the article concludes, the key is to focus on healthy eating habits rather than losing weight. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Minnesota, has conducted research on the effects of parents telling their teens to lose weight. She told The Times to do the following if your child is overweight:

“...wait for your child to bring it up, and be there to support them when they do. Say, ‘Look, I love you no matter what size you are, but if you would like, I will support you. I suggest we focus not so much on your weight but on your eating patterns and behaviors. What would be helpful for you?’”

This is all important information on a personal as well as broader scale. For adults and children alike, obesity is getting worse in America, and there's no doubt that obesity poses a huge cost to our society – approximately $1.1 trillion, according to findings by public policy nonprofit Brookings Institute and the World Food Center of the University of California at Davis.

It's also important to realize that gender plays a role in body image issues. Research has shown that women are exposed to more messages in media about thinness and body weight than men, which affects how young girls perceive their own bodies. As Business Insider reports, "A nine-year-long, 2014 study of thousands of 10-year-old girls published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that close to 60 percent of the participants had already been told they were 'too fat' by age 10." 

So, parents — of both boys and girls — in order to help fight the obesity epidemic, focus less on telling your kids to lose weight and more on getting your kids to eat their vegetables.

Read the full The New York Times article here.