Parents, don't talk about weight and dieting with your kids

Parents, don’t talk about weight and dieting with your kids

Many parents believe that talking about weight and dieting with kids is necessary to protect them from getting fat. And since we believe fat is deadly, parents who talk about dieting and weight control think they are keeping their kids healthy.

But did you know that kids whose parents had weight-focused conversations with them had higher weight? [1] It turns out that parents who focus on weight control and dieting increase their kids’ lifetime weight.

Now, that’s not the worst thing, since fat has been grossly overestimated as deadly. In fact, some studies show that being at a higher weight may be protective against the diseases we most fear, including heart disease and diabetes. [2]

But parents who teach their kids to fear fat artificially increase their kids’ baseline weight. They also create conditions ripe for eating disorders. [3] And while fat is less deadly than popular media would have us believe (see our full research library for data), eating disorders are definitely bad for our kids’ health.

Lots of parents fat talk in front of kids

Because of our culture, most parents engage in regular fat talk in front of children. This includes:

  • 76% of parents speak negatively of their own weight in front of children
  • 51.5% of parents speak negatively about “obesity” in front of children
  • 43.6% of parents speak negatively about their child’s weight in front of the child

Source: [4]

This behavior should not be surprising. Our culture widely criticizes fat and fat people. Many people believe it is their duty to inform fat people that they are endangering their health.

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Generational fat talk

Fat talk doesn’t arise from nowhere. It’s everywhere in our culture. Most media outlets trumpet the perceived dangers of fat. Doctors regularly engage in clunky attempts to discuss weight. And many families engage in generational fat talk and fat shaming.

Over 40% of young women and 27% of young men said they received encouragement from their mothers to diet to stay slim. And about 20% of young females and 18% of young males said they’d gotten similar messages from their dads. [3]

But parental pressure to get and stay slim is associated with poorer health in young adulthood. There seems to be a cumulative effect on adult behaviors centered on weight, weight-related behaviors and psychosocial well-being. [3]

Parents who talk about fat negatively create the very situation (fat) they were trying to avoid. And they simultaneously increase their child’s risk of mental health conditions, including eating disorders.

If you’re trying to avoid weight gain, don’t talk about weight control

Body weight is a complex topic. Our culture has mistakenly promoted it as a simple equation containing three incorrect concepts:

  1. Fat is deadly (not true)
  2. The way to avoid being/getting fat is to diet and “watch your weight” (not true)
  3. People will avoid being/getting fat if they are afraid of being fat and/or shamed for weight gain (not true)

Many parents believe that they can save their kids from weight gain by teaching weight control. They think they can prevent a lifetime of being fat by telling their kids that being fat is bad and that they should diet and control their weight.

But adolescents whose mothers or fathers had weight-focused conversations with them had higher BMI. [1] In other words, parents who try to avoid weight gain by talking about weight control increase the chance of weight gain in their kids.

Girls who are pressured to diet by their parents were 49% more likely to be categorized as “obese” as a young adult compared to girls who hadn’t gotten parental pressure. Boys who had a similar experience were 13% more likely to be categorized as “obese” as young men. [3]

This is because weight is more than just calories in/calories out. It’s a complex biological, environmental, social, and emotional equation. And parents who tell kids to control their weight work against their kids’ natural weight trajectory.

Talking about weight control increases chance of eating disorders

Not only do parents who urge their kids to diet boost their odds for obesity later in life. Parents who talk about dieting and weight also have kids who have an increased risk of eating disorders. [3]

Disordered eating behaviors are associated with hearing hurtful weight-related comments from family members, for both females and males. [5] Eating disorders, like weight, are complex. They are based on multiple factors including biological, environmental, social, and emotional.

Messages about dieting from parents are linked to higher odds for poor self-esteem, body satisfaction and depression in young adulthood. [3]

Parents who pressure their kids to control their weight and fear fat are inadvertently promoting eating disorder behaviors. These behaviors, which include food restriction, binge eating, and purging, create significant health conditions.

Parental pressure to diet increased the risk of “extreme weight control behaviors” (i.e. eating disorders) by 29% for girls and 12% for boys. [3] It is far healthier for parents to allow their kids’ weight to develop without criticism than to intervene. Parental interventions in their kids’ weight often backfire and create worse health.

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But what about health?

The only thing parents are being asked to do here is to stop engaging in negative fat talk and promoting weight control and dieting. Parents who want healthy kids can still create conditions in which each child will thrive.

Parents can have a big impact on their kids’ health. Parent conversations focused on weight and size are associated with increased risk for higher weight and disordered eating behaviors. But, conversations focused on healthful eating are protective against disordered eating behaviors. [6]

Parents can create an environment in which kids are healthy. But it has nothing to do with weight.

Tips for raising healthy kids:

1. Don’t discuss fat and obesity negatively. If you discuss weight, do so from a neutral standpoint in which you respect each person’s unique biological, environmental, social, and emotional conditions. Don’t ever make assumptions about a person’s health or behaviors based on their weight.

2. Don’t criticize your child when they gain weight. Weight gain is a natural part of development. There will be periods during which your child’s body changes, sometimes significantly. Hold back from commenting on weight gain. It will not help and may cause harm.

3. Protect your child from negative weight talk. Outside of your home, your child may still be subject to negative weight talk. Help protect them by teaching them about weight stigma. Consider opting out of school and doctor weigh-ins.

4. Talk about health behaviors with no weight association. Bodies can be healthy in a wide range of weights. Rather than focusing on weight, focus on behaviors that are healthy. Help your child get enough sleep, exercise, human connection, and a wide variety of foods.

5. Approach food from a neutral standpoint. Parents who restrict and outlaw certain foods set their kids up for negative food behaviors and beliefs. Instead, pursue an all foods fit approach. Provide and encourage a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins that are always easily available, but don’t restrict other foods that are fun and delicious.

Overall, what parents do around weight and food matters more than what they say. Investigate your own relationship with food and weight and explore Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size® to gain more understanding of the concepts covered in this article.


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.


References

[1] Berge et al, Parent conversations about healthful eating and weight: Associations with adolescent disordered eating behaviors, JAMA Pediatrics 2013

[2] Hainer et al, Obesity Paradox Does Exist, Diabetes Care, 2013

[3] Berge, et al, Cumulative Encouragement to Diet From Adolescence to Adulthood: Longitudinal Associations With Health, Psychosocial Well-Being, and Romantic Relationships, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2019

[4] Lydecker et al, Associations of parents’ self, child, and other “fat talk” with child eating behaviors and weight, International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2018

[5] Eisenberg et al, Associations between hurtful weight-related comments by family and significant other and the development of disordered eating behaviors in young adults, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2013

[6] Berge et al, Parent conversations about healthful eating and weight: associations with adolescent disordered eating behaviors, JAMA Pediatrics, 2013

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