If your parents pushed you to diet as a teen, chances are you will do the same to your own children.
New research suggests that when parents focus on a teen’s diet, it creates an unhealthy cycle that can harm generations to come.
“Adolescents who received encouragement to diet from their parents were more likely to do it with their own children,” said study author Jerica Berge.
“They also were more likely to be overweight and obese, more likely to be dieting or binging, and to have lower body satisfaction,” said Berge. She’s co-director of Healthy Eating and Activity Across the Lifespan Center at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.
Parental “encouragement” to diet is a common parental behavior. The researchers said that encouragement to diet was essentially parents telling their children that they should go on a diet to lose weight. Previous research has suggested that as many as 40 percent of parents regularly do so with their daughters and sons.
The new study included more than 550 people who had been recruited for a larger study while they were teens. They were followed for 15 years and were now parents themselves, according to Berge. Their average age now was 31, and two-thirds were female.
Those who were encouraged to diet in their teens were 25 percent more likely to be overweight and 37 percent more likely to be obese than people who didn’t get the diet talk during adolescence.
Those who were told to diet were 20 percent more likely to diet, 72 percent more apt to binge eat and 79 percent more likely to have unhealthy weight control behaviors than those who weren’t told to diet.
And those who were told to diet as teens were more than 50 percent more likely to tell their own kids to diet. They or family members were also 40 percent more likely to tease one another about their weight compared to people who weren’t told to diet in their teens.
So what can be done to break this pattern?
Berge said previous research has suggested that focusing on a child’s weight or pointing out that their stomach is fat can put kids at risk for future eating troubles. But when parents talk about the health benefits, it seems to have a protective effect on future weight.
“Parents are concerned about their kids, but need to try to focus on healthy conversations. Instead of focusing on weight, talk about how healthy eating can help everyone in the family be stronger physically and live longer lives,” she said.
Berge also said that pediatricians can help when they measure kids’ height and weight to talk about “growth versus obesity” or about how best to get on a “good growth trajectory.”
Nutritionist Samantha Heller wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings.
“Parents or caregivers need to be role models. They have to create an environment of healthy eating and healthy lifestyle for their kids. If a parent has their own body image issues or an unhealthy relationship with food, they’ll likely pass that down to their kids,” said Heller, from NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
Heller, who was not involved with the study, also suggested focusing on the benefits of a healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity. “Talk about how food can help, like how to eat to fuel for sports,” she said.
She suggested that parents and kids get professional help from a registered dietitian to learn about healthier eating.
The study was published online March 6 in the journal Pediatrics.
The Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on body image and your kids.