For parents whose chubby teenagers need to lose weight, here are two odd bits of advice: Don't say they're fat and don't tell them to diet.
That well-meaning advice can backfire, with teenagers ending up heavier than before. This new insight, reported in the June Pediatrics, comes as many schools have turned to notifying parents on report cards that their children are overweight.
"I've been concerned about all the attention being directed toward notifying parents without knowing if parents [then] do healthier things," says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a public health nutritionist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who polled parents to find out what they do when it's clear a child should slim down. "We found no differences in recommended behaviors, like having more fruit and vegetables in the home, or having family dinners."
Nor did parents use other proven weight-loss winners, such as forgoing TV during dinner; purging the pantry of soft drinks and salty snacks, and shunning fast food; and being physically active with the kids.
Neumark-Sztainer also found that parents were nearly twice as likely to push dieting if they thought their child was overweight—but that more often than not, the nudging didn't work. Sixty-six percent of the overweight girls whose parents encouraged them to diet were still overweight five years later, compared with 44 percent of those whose parents didn't push dieting. Indeed, the techniques that can work well for weight loss in adults may well cause an eating disorder in teens; my colleague Deborah Kotz explained last fall how hard it is to come up with weight-loss programs that work for adolescents. Restricting problem foods, for instance, can encourage them to binge or starve themselves. More than half of girls and one third of boys use cigarettes, fasting, or skipping meals to control their weight—all seriously unhealthy habits. Praising kids with statements like "You look great—have you lost weight?" also encourages unhealthful dieting.
The rise in obesity among children may be leveling off, as U.S. News medical writer Katie Hobson reported last month. But that still leaves one third of American kids overweight or obese.
"The most useful thing, first of all, is to stop talking about weight," Neumark-Sztainer says. "Stop talking about dieting, and stop making derogatory comments about weight."
As someone who will never forget immortal maternal phrases like "that would look better if you lost some weight," I'm all for parents laying off the diet talk. But as a parent now, I know how tough it can be to model the right habits. I'm certainly guilty of sneaking tortilla chips and chocolate while hailing the virtues of fruit for snacks. But Neumark-Sztainer told me that aiming for healthy food choices 50 percent of the time is a good goal. That I think I can manage. First the carrots, then the cupcake.
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