In 2010, the Obama administration launched the Let’s Move! campaign and a task force on childhood obesity to bring awareness to unhealthy patterns of eating and sedentary lifestyles. Since then, schools have provided healthier food choices, started growing fruits and vegetables in their own gardens and are fighting for more recess time. While schools are working to do their part to promote health and wellness, parents sometimes are at a loss on how to address these issues with their children. Teenagers are in the ego identity stage of development and healthy body image plays a role. If a parent is concerned about their teen’s weight, addressing the issue directly could actually hurt, not help.
In 2016, The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledged that weight talk, dieting and weight teasing are associated with both eating disorders and obesity. The AAP encourages doctors to discuss healthy habits and lifestyle, not weight loss, with their patients. Conversations between parents and children regarding weight loss are often linked to unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating and dieting.
Tracy Brown is a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist who works with both adolescents and adults on obtaining and maintaining a healthy body image. She advised parents to avoid body criticism and to stress the importance of feeling strong, having fun and eating a variety of foods. You might challenge your teen to train for a fun 5K (like a color run or other themed race), praising her progress as you run together. You can also try introducing her to healthy food from different cultures, noting the variety of flavor and spices.
“Teaching children that there are better or worse bodies to have sets up the potential for a lifetime of body shame and weight prejudice toward themselves and others,” she said. “Scaring people into healthy behaviors is not long-term motivating or empowering for adults. What makes us believe it will work for kids?”
Brown said that nutrient-dense, but not calorie deficient, meals and snacks are ideal (think nuts, protein and vegetables) and to also allow room for “play” food, such as cookies, chips and ice cream. She said that labeling food as “special” or “off limits” may cause your teen to sneak food, which ultimately leads to shame.
“We can teach our kids to listen to and trust their hunger and fullness, provide them with a variety of foods to eat … and show them through our words and actions that it’s not OK to judge a person by their size,” Brown said. Teach your child about mindful eating; no electronics or books at the dinner table. Instead, have her focus on the texture and taste of food, and recognize when her belly is full. “If our goal truly is mentally, emotionally and physically healthy children, we must provide a safe, consistent and nurturing environment around food and their bodies so they can actually grow up to have the bodies they are meant to have, not the one culture tries to dictate all people must be,” she said.
Red flags for eating-disordered behavior
- Desire to lose weight
- Desire to cut out food groups
- Skipping or decreasing meals
- Hiding food
- Eating in a very preoccupied way, either more or less
- Saying certain foods are unhealthy or bad
- Changes in mood
- Avoiding social activities that involve food or body
- Reported bullying or teasing