How to talk to your teens about weight

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Earlier this month, I did a TV segment with WZZM 13 news on the recent guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics on how to talk to your teens about weight. Interestingly enough, the takeaway was don’t. In the AAP’s article, they discuss the conundrum between addressing unhealthy eating or lifestyle behaviors while avoiding disordered eating. You may be reading this and wondering, why is this so important? Well here’s why. Thirty four percent of teens are categorized as overweight or obese, however eating disorders are the third most common chronic condition in adolescents. In other words, there is a fine line between addressing these unhealthy behaviors and doing harm.

I don’t have any children (unless you count two dogs and cat), but I know how I grew up. I was lucky enough to be constantly involved in athletics and regularly sat down to family meals made by my Mom during the week. I certainly believe I grew up in an environment that fostered healthy eating behaviors and just an overall healthy lifestyle (thanks Mom and Dad!).

However, I have met many friends and individuals along the way of my 27 years on this earth, that have not had the same upbringing. Some that did not have a healthy relationship with their parents, which affected family meal time and in turn their outlook on food. Some that were not involved in athletics and have struggled with weight all their life. And some that had a very unconventional childhood, but still managed to learn healthy lifestyle behaviors, whether that be from the example of their parents or self-taught.

Nonetheless, the impression made by our parents during our childhood makes a huge impact on our view on weight and lifestyle behaviors as an adult (whether we want to believe it or not). As stated before, I am not a parent, but knowing how challenging it can be to talk to adults about their weight as a dietitian, I know that it must be even more challenging to address weight and healthy eating behaviors with teens and children.

So let’s talk about strategies for promoting these healthy lifestyle behaviors.

1.    Dieting. Discourage dieting, skipping meals, or use of diet pills. Dieting or caloric restriction has been shown to be a risk factor for both obesity and eating disorders. Similarly, a recent study revealed that dieting behaviors among adolescents were associated with a two-fold increased risk of becoming overweight and a 1.5-fold increased risk of developing eating disorders. Rather, focusing on healthy eating and physical activity behaviors that will continue long term, such as planting their own fruits or vegetables at home or encouraging participation in school clubs or sports.

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2.    Family meals. Making family meals a priority at home not only allows time for parents to interact with their adolescent, but they have also been associated with improved dietary quality, specifically increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains, fiber and calcium-rich foods. This time also provides an opportunity for parents to model healthy eating behaviors for their teens or to address any eating-related issues early.

3.    Healthy body image. Close to half of teenage girls and one-quarter of teenage boys are dissatisfied with their bodies. Having an unhealthy body image has been shown to also be a risk factor for eating disorders and disordered eating. Emphasizing that a healthy body comes in different shapes and sizes can help promote a positive body image. Teens with a healthier body image were more likely to have parents that encouraged healthy eating and exercising for energy, instead of dieting.

4.    Weight talk. Try to avoid unhealthy comments about your weight as a parent, weights of other individuals or family members, and last, but not least, the weight of your teen. Even if well intended, these comments can quickly be taken the wrong way. These comments, even if they are not intended for your teen send a message that the most important thing about that person is their weight. Several studies have shown that parental weight talk with an emphasis on dieting has been linked to overweight and eating disorders. Instead of focusing on numbers on the scale and dieting, don’t be afraid to talk openly about the importance of eating a variety of foods and the benefits of exercise. Make trying a new food or exercise a part of your regular trips to the grocery store or gym, instead of talking always about limiting food intake.

With overweight and obesity rates on the rise among teens and with such an appearance-focused society, it is imperative for parents to address these issues appropriately and model the right lifestyle behaviors. Still feel like addressing these weight issues is over your head as a parent? Contact me at noshindietitian@gmail.com or contact a local eating disorder specialist.

Be sure to check out my discussion with WZZM 13 here: http://www.wzzm13.com/entertainment/television/programs/my-west-michigan/on-the-menu-how-to-talk-to-teens-about-weight/314469182

-EAW

Resources:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/stevens/ct-talking-to-kids-about-weight-balancing-0823-20160823-column.html

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/08/18/peds.2016-1649