“Do you really need to be eating that?”
“Slow down, I’m worried about your health.”
These are just a few of the many weight- and eating-related comments a HuffPost reader named Haleigh heard from her parents. They may seem innocuous to someone who doesn’t struggle with weight or didn’t grow up being constantly criticized for their body. But these and other comments made Haleigh, who at 5’6 was a perfectly healthy 160 pounds in high school, invest in a personal trainer and the Weight Watchers diet program. The weight-based criticism also made Haleigh feel terrible about how she looked, which in turn fed unhealthy behaviors including secret eating.
Now, at 24 years old, Haleigh weighs 240 pounds ― and she’s still getting those same comments from her family, despite the fact that she’s asked them to stop.
“Looking back at it, it’s fucking insane to think that I was at a pretty healthy weight for my height and still feeling so shitty about my body,” said Haleigh, who asked to have her last name withheld. “While I know their intentions may be good because they love me, they simply don’t understand how much it kills me inside.”
Jaclyn Saltzman, a doctoral researcher in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, isn’t surprised that Haleigh struggled with secret eating, a characteristic of binge eating disorder. In a recent review of the studies on binge eating disorders in children, Saltzman found that weight teasing and parental emotional unresponsiveness are the two familial behaviors that are most consistently linked with childhood binge eating.
“We know that weight teasing and critical comments about a child’s body can increase their risk for problems later,” said Saltzman. “However, every kid and family is different, and we think it’s less about what exactly is said, and more about the emotional tone and message that the child hears.”
What is binge eating?
Binge eating is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. Symptoms include a lack of control while eating, eating faster than normal, eating when not physically hungry, eating alone and feeling depressed or guilty after an eating session. The disorder is also commonly linked to health risks like depression, anxiety and clinical obesity, although it’s important to note that binge eating doesn’t necessarily cause someone to gain weight, and it can affect people who are underweight, normal weight or obese.
In teens, it’s more than five times more common than anorexia, as well as two times more common than bulimia. It affects children as young as five years old and cuts across all races, ethnic groups and genders. To get a comprehensive picture about what research says about binge eating in childhood, Saltzman and Janet M. Liechty, a professor of medicine and social work at the University of Illinois, published a systematic review of 15 studies published over the last 35 years on the family factors that may be associated with childhood bingeing.
They found that weight teasing from family members, as well as parental emotional unresponsiveness, were associated with higher rates of childhood binge eating. They also found that the parents’ own weight, education, socioeconomic status and race or ethnicity did not have an effect on childhood binge eating, while evidence was unclear whether a parent’s own disordered eating patterns, dieting, or concern about weight and thinness had any tie.
“These findings are unique in that they stress the importance of shifting the paradigm from focus on weight alone, to addressing parents’ beliefs about weight, and their emotional needs and coping strategies, in order to have a cascading effect on child wellbeing and health,” said Liechty. “This is a new area, but we’re starting to understand more about the importance of the emotional climate in the home, and it’s effect on children’s body image, self-concept, and health behaviors.”
How parents and families can help their kids
This review, published recently in the journal Eating Behaviors, is one of several recent studies that suggest disordered eating patterns and low self esteem in children don’t just appear out of thin air. Girls who remember hearing comments about their weight were more likely to grow up to have a heavier body mass index and more body dissatisfaction as adults, and women who were told they were “too fat” as young girls had a greater chance of ending up obese as an adult ― even if they technically weren’t overweight as kids.
While children encounter body-related pressures from all different sources outside the home, these and other studies suggest that parents play a crucial role in shaping a children’s opinions about their body. Parents or guardians also play a vital role in modeling the kinds of lifestyle behaviors — healthy or not — that can influence the way children eat or care for themselves as adults.
But Saltzman and Liechty aren’t calling for parents to blame themselves if their child exhibits binge eating behaviors, saying that would be “counterproductive” and “incorrect.” Indeed, the studies in their research review couldn’t distinguish between weight teasing from parents as opposed to siblings or other members of the family.
But the researchers do call on parents to take responsibility for their own behavior and empower themselves to create a positive, joyful and healthy environment at home.
“There is a lot more parents can do to create a culture in their home that doesn’t tolerate teasing, that focuses on positive body image and promoting joyful health behaviors in the home like cooking or playing outside together,” said Liechty. “We want our research to help parents realize their power in making sure that the emotional climate in their home is healthy and positive.”
”Parents do have a lot of responsibility, but they’re not immune to the societal influences on health behavior,” Saltzman concluded. “We all need to take more responsibility for creating healthy environments for our children.”