“Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat!”

Immortal words: “Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat.” Increasingly, parents are warned about the impact they have on their children’s body image. Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Mayo Clinic eating disorders program, recently told USA Today:

Zero talk about dieting, zero talk about weight. Zero comments not only about your daughter’s weight, obviously, but zero talk about your weight and even other people’s weight.

Yet a new study published in Social Science and Medicine, documents how the best intentions about health and parenting can get translated into a moralistic family dialogue that doesn’t help. Investigators conducted in-depth interviews with 150 families (at least one parent and child) and conducted a thematic network analysis on the results. They found three themes:

  1. Weight = Health. Both parents and children understand weight as an indicator of health. But parents think about the physical hazards while children think about the social impact.
  2. Fatness = Moral Hazard. Parents feel obliged to teach their children about the “dangers” of fatness. Children hear negative messages and what they perceive as “scare tactics.”
  3. Thinness = A Free Pass. Both parents and children give voice to the view that diet and exercise choices are less important if you’re thin. A little exercise can burn off the effects of dietary indiscretion, or so the thinking goes.

These qualitative observations, based on a disciplined analysis, have a ring of truth in describing how public health concerns about obesity translate into family dynamics.

What they can’t do is provide a practical guide for parents that goes beyond the cautions from Sims about subjects to avoid. “Don’t” is useless advice by itself — whether the subject is parenting or healthy habits. People need an ample supply of “do’s.”

Click here for a good supply of things to do in talking with your children about weight and health from the Weigh In Guide produced by the STOP Obesity Alliance and the Alliance for a Healthier generation.

Click here to read the study in Social Science & Medicine.

Mother-Daughter, photograph © Rachel Gardner / flickr

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2 Responses to ““Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat!””

  1. August 26, 2014 at 6:11 am, Leah Whigham said:

    Note to the editor – the “o” was left off of “Mayo” clinic

    • August 26, 2014 at 12:51 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Leah! Dang computer and spell-checker.