Parents need to be careful about how they approach the topic of weight control with their overweight teenagers, a new study suggests.
The wrong words or tone could send these kids down a road of wacky diets, binge eating and ultimately worse dietary habits, according to a study appearing today (June 24) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
In short, don't mention the F word — fat, that is. Overweight or obese teenagers whose parents talked to them about obesity in terms of weight, size or appearance were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors, which set up a pattern of yo-yo dieting and periods of binge eating.
The best approach to help children control their weight for a lifetime is to talk about healthful eating behaviors, such as which foods are beneficial for good health and disease prevention. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]
A bad approach, on the other hand, would be to tease them, or to suggest to children that what they are eating is only going to make them fatter.
"An example of a [productive] conversation would be, 'Eating fruits and vegetables will make your body healthy and strong,' as opposed to 'Eat your fruits and vegetables because you need to lose some weight,'" said Jerica Berge, lead author on the study and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
The study authors noted that the same advice holds for parents of normal-weight children.
Previous research has shown that it often backfires when parents encourage overweight children to diet, leading instead to weight gain and excessive worry about weight. Given these results, coupled with the general sense of frustration parents often feel when trying to get their children to be healthier or more responsible, parents and doctors have wondered what methods do work when seeking to control a teenager's excessive weight.
Obesity has more than tripled among adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 20 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19 are obese, and many more are overweight.
Obese adolescents are more likely to be pre-diabetic and have bone and joint problems. Without effective intervention, these kids also are nearly guaranteed to be obese adults, according to a 1999 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and several subsequent studies. This sets these children up for increased risk of early death from type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and several types of cancer.
The new study revealed that kids who got the health talk, instead of the fat talk, were about 50 percent less likely to engage in negative, counterproductive dieting activities. The health talk was also more effective than saying nothing at all.
"My clinical experience would say that even if a child came to the parent saying they wanted to lose weight, a parent would not want to reinforce the 'weight talk' by saying, 'If you want to lose "weight" and reduce your "size" (repeating words he [the child] is using), you need to eat better and exercise,'" Berge told LiveScience.
"Rather, the parent should say something like, 'I think its great that you want to be more healthy through eating better and exercising. How can I help?'" Berge said. This allows the parent to focus on the positive actions the child wants to take," she said.
Similarly, parents should model good behavior with comments about eating better themselves to be healthier, not to lose weight or to look good in a swimming suit.
The study was based on a health survey of 2,348 adolescents whose average age was 14.4 years, and 3,528 parents. The data were drawn from the larger Eating and Activity in Teens 2010 (EAT 2010) study.
The researchers acknowledged that their study shows an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, it remains unclear whether conversations about being too fat actually drive the unhealthy behavior such as binge eating, or whether it is the child's unhealthy behavior that prompts a weight-focused, rather than health-focused conversation.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of a new novel, "Hey, Einstein!", a comical nature-versus-nurture tale about raising clones of Albert Einstein in less-than-ideal settings. His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.