Talking to Teens About Weight & Size

Weight and size conversations with teens may increase the risk of unhealthy dieting

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Talking to teenagers about weight can be tough. Taking the conversation in the wrong direction may trigger unhealthy dieting behaviors.

A recent study surveyed a group of teens about their eating habits and a group of parents about how they talked to their kids about eating or weight control.

The results of this study showed that talking to teens about anything other than healthful eating increased the risk of those teens engaging in unhealthy dieting behaviors.

"Promote healthful eating to teens."

Jerica M. Berge, PhD, MPH, from the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, led this study into communication between kids and parents about weight, size and eating.

"Given the high prevalence of different types of weight-related problems in adolescents, including both obesity and eating disorders, parents may wonder whether talking with their adolescent child about eating habits and weight is useful or detrimental," the study authors wrote.

Previous research showed that when family members teased a child or adolescent about his or her weight, the risk for disordered eating increased.

Disordered eating or unhealthy weight control methods could include severe calorie restrictions, fasting, binge eating and laxative use.

For this study, the researchers collected data from the ongoing Eating and Activity in Teens (EAT 2010) survey and the Project Families and Eating and activity in Teens (Project F-EAT) survey between 2009 and 2010.

For the EAT 2010 survey, 2,793 adolescents from 20 public middle and high schools provided information about their eating behaviors and activity levels.

The teens from the EAT 2010 survey were 53 percent female, racially/ethnically diverse and from all ranges of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Overall, there were 1,421 non-overweight and 821 overweight teens.

For the Project F-EAT survey, 3,709 teens provided contact information for one or both parents, who were asked to fill out a survey and participate in a telephone interview.

Of the responders, 62 percent were mothers or female guardians.

The researchers found that when parents talked to their teens about weight or size, the teen was more likely to engage in unhealthy dieting or eating behaviors.

Conversations about weight/size included mentioning that the teen weighs too much or should eat differently to lose weight or keep from gaining weight, according to the authors.

Among the non-overweight teens whose mothers talked about healthful eating, 23 percent were dieting, 30 percent were engaging in unhealthy weight control, 2 percent engaged in extreme unhealthy weight control and 4 percent were binge eating.

Of the non-overweight teens whose mothers talked about weight and size, 35 percent were dieting, 39 percent were engaged in unhealthy weight control, 6 percent engaged in extreme unhealthy weight control and 8 percent were binge eating.

The researchers noted that little difference was found in teen eating behavior between teens who had parents who talked about healthy eating and teens who had parents who didn’t talk about eating or weight at all.

Among the overweight teens whose moms talked about healthful eating, 40 percent were dieting and 41 percent were engaged in unhealthy weight control methods.

Of the overweight teens whose mothers talked about weight and size, 53 percent were dieting and 53 percent were engaged in unhealthy weight control methods.

The study authors suggested that parents should avoid conversations that focus on weight or losing weight and instead engage in conversations that focus on healthful eating, without referencing weight/size issues.

"Obesity has become a very big problem with the pediatric population.  But we can't blame the kids alone.  Parents are responsible for shopping, buying groceries, and are the child's main role models.  Parents who are worried about their child's eating habits should look at their own eating habits," Jody Emmi, a registered dietician on staff at DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan, told dailyRx News.   

"Parent conversations focused on weight/size are associated with increased risk for adolescent disordered eating behaviors, whereas conversations focused on healthful eating are protective against disordered eating behaviors," wrote the study authors in conclusion.

"Make sure there are healthy choices available and easy to reach for.  Encourage portion control and limit mindless snacking. Encourage physical activity.  Lead by example, encourage healthy eating in all family members, not just the ones with weight concerns.  Putting too much focus on weight can create insecurity.  I agree to place the focus on being "healthy", feeling good, and being active," said Emmi.

This study was published in June in JAMA Pediatrics.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development helped support funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 23, 2013
Last Updated:
August 1, 2013