Well-intentioned comments about your daughter's weight could have long-term negative consequences for her health, according to new research from scientists at Cornell University.
Researchers didn't make a distinction between positive or negative comments in the study, but they found that any comment a girl remembered hearing about her weight predicted a heavier body mass index and more dissatisfaction with her body as an adult -- even if she wasn't overweight.
The research, published this month in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders, aligns with previous studies that found women who were put on diets as children were more likely to struggle with obesity and disordered eating. Similarly, researchers have previously found that women who were told they were “too fat” as children were more likely to be obese as adults -- even if they were of normal weight to begin with as children.
While these aforementioned studies are about girls and women, other research shows that boys are not immune to concerns about body image. But instead of striving to be thin or weigh less like girls, teen boys typically become dissatisfied with their bodies if they are not tall and muscular.
This study adds to the existing body of research about the effects of parental commentary on a child's health by finding that it was specifically comments about the child's weight, and not about the amount of food a child ate or a parent's own weight that was linked to body dissatisfaction in adulthood.
While these studies only establish correlations, and not cause-and-effect relationships, they do suggest that any commentary about weight could set the child on a journey of unhealthy eating habits and diets in an attempt to lose weight, which in the end can lead to them gaining even more weight.
In other words, a parent's concern about their child's health when it comes to weight may end up backfiring and contributing even more to the problem.
But just because these studies suggest parents probably shouldn’t say something about a child’s weight, the continued rise of obesity in America indicates that parents definitely do need to address weight issues. More than a third of children and teens are overweight or obese, and this obesity puts them at higher risk for chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
If parents are concerned that their children may be headed toward obesity or if a pediatrician has expressed concern, experts say that the best thing to do would be to personally model a healthy lifestyle wordlessly. Encourage the entire family to eat nutritious foods and get regular physical activity together, instead of making one child the target of intervention.
Tell us: Did your parents comment on your body growing up or encourage you to diet? How did it affect your relationship with your body when you grew up? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.