Roni Caryn Rabin reports, at the New York Times' Well blog.
Should parents talk to an overweight child about weight? Or should they just keep their mouths shut?
Now a new study offers some guidance: Don’t make comments about a child’s weight.
The study, published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders, is one of many finding that parents’ careless — though usually well-meaning — comments about a child’s weight are often predictors of unhealthy dieting behaviors, binge eating and other eating disorders, and may inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about weight that children internalize. A parent’s comments on a daughter’s weight can have repercussions for years afterward, contributing to a young woman’s chronic dissatisfaction with her body – even if she is not overweight.
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The new study included over 500 women in their 20s and early 30s who were asked questions about their body image and also asked to recall how often their parents commented about their weight. Whether the young women were overweight or not, those who recalled parents’ comments were much more likely to think they needed to lose 10 or 20 pounds, even when they weren’t overweight.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, characterized the parents’ critical comments as having a “scarring influence.”
“We asked the women to recall how frequently parents commented, but the telling thing was that if they recalled it happening at all, it had as bad an influence as if it happened all the time,” said Dr. Wansink, author of the book “Slim by Design.” “A few comments were the same as commenting all the time. It seems to make a profound impression.”
Some studies have actually linked parents’ critical comments to an increased risk of obesity. One large government-funded study that followed thousands of 10-year-old girls found that, at the start of the study, nearly 60 percent of the girls said someone — a parent, sibling, teacher or peer – had told them they were “too fat.” By age 19, those who had been labeled “too fat” were more likely to be obese, regardless of whether they were heavy at age 10 or not.
That's scary. What should parents do?
Dr. Neumark-Sztainer was besieged by parents asking her this question, and wondering, “How do I prevent them from getting overweight and still feel good about themselves?”
In her book, called “I’m, Like, SO Fat: Helping Your Teen Make Health Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World,” she notes that parents can influence a child’s eating habits without talking about them. “I try to promote the idea of talking less and doing more — doing more to make your home a place where it’s easy to make healthy eating and physical activity choices, and talking less about weight.”
For parents, that means keeping healthy food in the house and not buying soda. It means sitting down to enjoy family dinners together, and also setting an example by being physically active and rallying the family to go for walks or bike rides together. Modeling also means not carping about your own weight. “Those actions speak louder than words,” Dr. Puhl said.