Parents often struggle with how to discuss diet and nutrition with their children, knowing there is a fine line between providing help and doing harm.
A new study provides some guidance, suggesting it's best to leave the "w"-word -- weight -- out of it altogether.
Parents who led conversations that focused on size or weight had teens who were more likely to try unhealthy ways to shed pounds, whereas talks that focused solely on the benefits of healthy eating and good nutrition appeared to bestow a sort of protective effect.
"This was a pretty clear pattern when we look across non-overweight and overweight teenagers, regardless of which parent" did the talking, said study author Jerica Berge, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "When parents focused on losing weight, those conversations were associated with unhealthy weight control -- with diets, binging, purging and diuretics."
Researchers surveyed more than 2,300 Minneapolis-area teens with an average age of 14.4 years and their parents about how they'd talked about eating behaviors. The findings were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics this week.
On the whole, conversations about weight and about healthy eating were frequent. Around 60 percent of the parents of overweight teens had talked to their children about the need to lose weight. And 33 percent of moms and dads of healthy-weight teens had discussed weight or weight loss with them.
By comparison, nearly 30 percent of moms and 23 percent of dads of healthy-weight teens had talked to their kids about healthful eating without bringing up weight. But only 15 percent of moms and dads of overweight teens had talked to them specifically about healthful eating, without raising the issue of weight.
So what's the difference?
Berge described a conversation about healthy eating as one in which parents say, "I want you to eat your fruits and veggies," versus one in which parents say, "I want you to eat well, because I am concerned about your weight." The study is among the first to try and quantify the outcomes of different types of discussion among even the most well-intentioned moms and dads.
"I do think parents struggle with this question of how to talk to their kids about weight," said Marlene Schwartz, a psychologist and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, who did not work on the new study. "They're given mixed messages."
In her practice, Schwartz generally advises parents to emphasize that food is something joyful and nurturing, but to also be firm about what they will and will not allow in their homes. As much as possible, parents should "leave the word 'weight' out of it," she said. If a child brings it up, parents can try to reframe the conversation, emphasizing nutrition and making it clear that healthy, beautiful bodies come in many shapes.
Experts cautioned that conversations about food and weight are complex and important as childhood obesity continues to rise in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of children and teens are now overweight or obese.
Dr. Russell Marx, chief science officer for the National Eating Disorder Association, argued that while the conversations parents have with their children have a clear influence on eating behaviors, it is even more important for parents to model healthy behaviors themselves. However, if their children develop disordered eating or eating disorders, parents should not feel that they are to blame, as both genetic and environmental factors play a role, he said.
“It’s best to promote healthy behaviors and to promote balance,” said Marx. “If you’re too harsh on any behavior, you tend to drive it underground.”