Wrap your head around this:  For the first eighteen years of life, parents (mostly moms) are responsible for providing nearly 20,000 meals for their child!  Even if the eating is done elsewhere — school, restaurants, camp, grandma’s house — moms are still probably asking their kids:  “So what did you eat there?”

With more than a third of all American children either overweight or obese, parents worry more than ever about weight and height and BMI, as well as what their kids are or aren’t eating.  Aside from overweight and obesity, parents also need to be concerned about children developing unhealthy eating habits and even eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

How should parents converse with their children — particularly teenagers — who are overweight or obese?  What should we say, and what should we NOT say?  A new and interesting study from the University of Minnesota, published in JAMA Pediatrics, points the way:

Parent conversations focused on weight/size are associated with increased risk for adolescent disordered eating behaviors, whereas conversations focused on healthful eating are protective against disordered eating behaviors.


Lindsay Abrams drills down:

Dieting was most common in adolescents whose parents talked with them about their weight. This could be anything from just “having a conversation” about their size to mentioning that they should eat differently or exercise in order to lose or keep from gaining weight. However, disordered eating — defined as taking unhealthy measures to control their weight (fasting, laxatives and diet pills, throwing up, etc) or binge eating — was also highest among those same children.


The key, according to Francine Russo, is to focus positive attention on appropriate eating habits and foods and their effect on healthfulness rather than weight, BMI, or physical appearance.  Dads seem to especially have a hard time with this:

The effect was especially strong when fathers were involved in these discussions with their daughters, and concentrated on weight as opposed to talking about healthy eating in general. “Dads should never comment on girls’ or daughters’ bodies,” says Mary Jo Rapini, co-author of “Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You and Your Mom about Health, Sex, or Whatever…” Instead, she suggests, fathers should concentrate on their daughters’ skills or interests, and that can help them “feel loved by their dad and confident enough to work on their body issues,” she says.


So we shouldn’t be talking to our kids about how they look. Everyone is different and no one is perfect.  We should instead use our words to talk about good health and improved performance — better growth through puberty, better speed and strength in sports, better thinking in school, fewer days sick. This may not be as easy as it sounds:

It’s all about presenting the importance of eating well and being healthy in terms that are relevant to a teen’s own needs and interests. And, say experts, it’s helpful for them to understand that whatever they decide to eat, and the consequences of those decisions, are under their control. Lectures on what they are doing wrong, and forcing them to change how they eat “because it’s good for them” may backfire and drive them to pick up even unhealthier habits. “Nobody likes to be controlled,” says Nancy Anderson Dolan, clinical director of WiseHeart Wellness. “Everybody likes to be understood and assisted.”


It’s also important to remember that teenagers aren’t impressed by what we say.  It’s what we do — by setting a good example — that has the most impact:

“Parents must look in the mirror first,” says Dolan “and deal with their own issues, both about weight prejudice and health habits.” That can go a long way toward making conversations about healthy eating with their own children more productive.


Read more on The PediaBlog about obesity and nutrition here.