A new study has found that urging youngsters to diet can have long-term negative weight-related and emotional effects and may result in their repeating the same unhealthy cycle with their own children.
In other words, eating dysfunction may run in families, and language is one culprit that keeps it going.
“It’s important for parents to understand the power of their own words,” said Jerica M. Berge, lead study author and associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics, found that when adolescents were encouraged by their parents to diet, they were more likely to be overweight, engage in unhealthy weight-related behaviors, and have lower body satisfaction as teens and later as adults.
And the bad news didn’t end there.
The study subjects told to diet as kids also were “more likely to tell their own children to go on a diet,” said Berge. “These results suggest that a pattern is created and passed from one generation to the next.”
Berge said the findings may be helpful for parents and health-care providers trying to break harmful patterns and focus instead on goals like gaining strength rather than losing weight.
Berge and her colleagues found that teenagers urged to diet tend to have a variety of problems in follow-ups 15 years later as adults. That includes being more likely to be overweight, to diet, binge eat and try to control their weight through unhealthy practices like fasting, vomiting, using diuretics or diet pills and smoking cigarettes.
These individuals tended to be female, but the outcomes occurred with males, too. They were also more apt to come from lower socio-economic households.
And as adults with their own children, they were more likely to talk about dieting to their offspring and to head households where people talked about weight — their own and others — and even tease one another about weight.
By comparison, Berge said she and her colleagues’ previous research found children whose parents talked to them about health rather than weight and dieting were less likely later to be overweight or engage in harmful weight-control behaviors.
Stefanie Weiner, a clinical dietitian with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Healthy Weight Program, said the best guidance parents can give their children on eating habits may not be found in words.
“Role modeling is the number one strongest influence,” Weiner said.
Parents can create healthy food environments at home, which can help lead youngsters make better choices outside the home, she said. A parents’ own excess weight can speak volumes.
Instead of having a conversation about a new, healthy food item, or seeking the child’s approval, just serve it, said Weiner.
“A kid might be curious about a new food, but as soon as parents say, ‘Try it,’ the kid shuts down,” she said.
The same goes for exercise. Talk less, do more.
“Parents can change the whole culture of the household with minimal conversation,” Weiner said. “Kids might not even notice it’s happening.”