Talking to your children about their weight and food choices is a tricky matter, as it could influence whether a child develops an eating disorder, according to a new study. 

Researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School said that conversations focusing on body weight and size are linked to an increased risk of unhealthy dieting, binging, and other weight-controlling behaviors in young people. 

“Because adolescence is a time when more youths engage in disordered eating behaviors, it is important for parents to understand what types of conversations may be helpful or harmful in regard to disordered eating behaviors and how to have these conversations with their adolescents,” Jerica M. Berge, an assistant professor at the U of M, and others wrote in the study, published today in JAMA Pediatrics

Besides choosing the right words, the best way to show the importance of nutrition over numbers on a scale is to lead by example, according to Dr. Russell Marx, chief science officer with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). 

“The most important thing is modeling. The kids will follow more what their parents do, rather than what they say,” Marx said in an interview with Healthline. “If you’re modeling good behavior, it’s going to come through.” 

Adolescence can be a difficult time for anyone, and with rising social pressures, Marx said being body conscious isn’t unusual for children of that age.

“Most kids in our society, especially girls, are concerned about their weight. It’s quite normative to be dieting, but it’s about finding a balance point between eating and exercise,” he said. “People shouldn’t feel compelled to push their problems down to the fork and eat their problems.”

How Parents Affect Kids' Eating Habits

Researchers asked 2,348 adolescents and 3,528 parents how they dealt with the topic of weight. They found that parents who talked to their obese children about nutrition and healthy eating were less likely to have a child with an eating disorder than parents whose conversations focused on body weight and size. 

“These findings suggest that parents should avoid conversations that focus on weight or losing weight and instead engage in conversations that focus on healthful eating, without reference to weight issues,” the researchers concluded. “This approach may be particularly important for parents of overweight or obese adolescents.” 

However, the researchers said their data cannot establish a cause-and-effect relationship between these discussions and childhood eating disorders. For example, as they noted in the study, children with eating disorders may incite weight-related conversations, instead of the conversations prompting the eating disorders. 

The researchers said that if parents are looking for the best ways to talk about weight with their children, discussing and promoting healthy habits like eating well and exercising regularly will yield better outcomes, regardless of their child’s age and weight.

Leading by Example and Getting Help

The study also noted the importance of a father’s role in weight discussions. Researchers found that fathers who had weight-centered conversations had children who were significantly more likely to diet or to practice other unhealthy weight-control behaviors.

“I think that’s true with my experience as well,” Marx said, mentioning tips for body-positive days on NEDA’s blog.

When speaking to a child about his or her health and weight, Marx said, it's important for parents not to use demeaning or shaming language and not to engage in badgering or harassment. 

“If you harass, it becomes a power struggle,” he said. “It’s about modeling the behavior.” 

Marx said parents should look for opportunities to lead by example, whether it’s picking the right foods at the supermarket or finding chances to exercise.

However, he said, if a child is showing signs of an eating disorder, parents should take the child to a doctor because there could be other explanations for sudden weight changes, including depression and diabetes.

“It’s good if you have that level of concern, to start with professional help,” Marx said. “That’s a good statement as well. It shows care.”

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