Parent and Child

Parenting in the Face of Obesity and Eating Disorders

A new study yesterday in Pediatrics brings a new four-letter word of parenting into focus: diet. Jerica Berge and colleagues report that encouraging teens to diet can do lasting harm. Teens who receive diet talk from their parents are more likely to have problems with obesity as adults.

But that’s not all. These teens are also more likely to have issues with binge eating, unhealthy weight-related behaviors, and body dissatisfaction in adulthood. Most troubling, though, is the finding that this cycle repeats. As parents, these young adults are more likely to inflict that diet talk on their own children. The cycle repeats.

That Confusing Four-Letter Word

Everyone has a diet, meaning their pattern for eating day after day. But in the context of going on a diet, it becomes a verb – dieting. And that’s where the problem starts. Short-term, highly restrictive diets are not a prescription for long-term health.

Nonetheless, people consume great volumes of information about diets: low carb, low fat, Mediterranean, vegetarian, flexitarian, DASH, and the list goes on. Some of these can be the foundation for a sustainable pattern of eating for good health. Others can be severely restrictive and unsustainable.

What is clear is that parenting requires attention to the severe harm that four letter word can do. Great harm can result when a parent encourages a child to diet.

So What Should Parents Do and Say?

The most basic advice is simple: unconditional love. Beyond that basic impulse for all parenting, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points to some basics for preventing both obesity and eating disorders in teens.

1. Discourage dieting. Model a sustainable healthy pattern for eating and steer teens away from restrictive, short-term weight loss schemes. Remember that your actions will speak more loudly than your words.

2. Promote a positive body image. This flows naturally from unconditional love. Every body, every size, and every shape needs love and respect.

3. Plan for family meals. Make time and expect time to enjoy family meals together.

4. Talk health, not weight. Weight talk leads to body dissatisfaction, which then leads back to the false proposition that dieting can fix it all. Healthy patterns and habits for living offer a more positive track.

5. Pay attention to bullying and mistreatment. If you see clues that something is wrong, pay attention, listen, and follow up. Schools and teachers have an obligation to help.

6. Seek out real help for obesity. If your teen has a real medical issue with obesity, find qualified medical care. Self-help approaches can do more harm than good. Talk to your pediatrician. Seek out a qualified program with specialists who understand that obesity is a biological issue – not a character flaw or the product of bad parenting.

The Reality of Obesity and Eating Disorders

Childhood obesity is a reality for one in five children. Five million young people are living with severe obesity. At the same time, half a million teens are living with an eating disorder. Parents and healthcare providers can’t afford to neglect either of these very real problems.

Click here for the study by Berge et al, here for a companion commentary. For guidance from the AAP, click here.

Parent and Child, photograph © skyseeker / flickr

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March 7, 2018