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Telling teens to lose weight could backfire: What parents should say

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Weight loss conversations from parents lead to risky eating behaviors.

Parents who forego talking to their teens about weight and body size may be doing exactly the right thing finds a new study. According to findings published by JAMA Pediatrics, discussing weight loss with adolescents might backfire and lead to risky eating behaviors that actually lead to weight gain over time.

Focus on healthy eating

Instead parents should consistently focus on healthy eating, Jerica M. Berge, Ph.D., M.P.H., L.M.F.T., of the University of Minnesota Medical School, and colleagues suggest.

Berge noted adolescence is a time when many teen engage in erratic or disordered eating behaviors, making it important for parents to know what types of conversations can harm and what type of dialogue can help.

In their study, they found adolescents whose parents talked about size or weight were more like to diet and engage in unhealthful eating patterns that could put them at risk.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Behavior highlights eating very little, taking diet pills or using substitutes for food leads to ‘significant’ weight gain over time.

The researchers looked at data from two studies that included surveys from parents and teens whose average age was approximately 14.

The surveys were focused on conversations between teens and parents related to weight and food.

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What parents should say to teens about weight management

Teens whose mom’s talked about eating healthful foods were less likely to diet and engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors.

Sixty-four percent of teens who received a talk about food and weight loss were found to use weight control behaviors that could lead to other health problems, compared to 41 percent of adolescents whose parents only focused on eating healthy food and 53 percent whose moms’ didn't discuss either.

Additionally, 39 percent of normal weight children had used troubling weight management behaviors when mothers’ discussed weight, compared to 30 percent whose mother emphasized just being healthy.

For many teens, discussing being overweight can lead to anger and resentment. Adolescents who are obese also face other struggles from teasing and bullying, in addition to a variety of future health risks.

ABC's Dr. Jennifer Ashton, not involved in the study, also has advice for teens. She suggests adolescents can ask their doctor's for help meeting their weight loss goals.

One of the short-comings of the study says Berge is that it is difficult to know which came first – weight management conversations or unhealthy eating behaviors because the surveys were conducted at a single point in time. Either way, discussions from parents about how to eat healthy throughout life are not going to cause harm.

The study authors suggest focusing on health rather than weight loss is a positive approach for parents that can help overweight or obese adolescents who are already struggling with body image and could face a lifetime of health issues.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons