The childhood obesity epidemic continues to plague the United States, especially since big food corporations have been so effective at marketing their unhealthy products to kids. But there’s been ongoing disagreement about how to best address the issue of obesity within the context of the U.S.’ bad track record on body issues and fat-shaming. The results from a new study give parents some guidance when it comes to bringing up the topic with their kids: instead of focusing on weight, talk about nutrition.
After researchers from the University of Minnesota compiled data from different surveys on adolescents’ eating behaviors and family environments, they found that kids are more likely to diet if their parents talk to them about their weight. But disordered eating behaviors — like fasting, throwing up, taking laxatives and diet pills, or binge eating — was also most common among that same group of kids. About 64 percent of overweight teens whose mothers talked to them about their weight reported that they engaged in dieting and disordered eating, compared to 40 percent of teens whose mothers emphasized healthy eating instead.
That pattern held true for the kids who weren’t overweight, too. Among the teen participants whose mothers talked to them about weight and who reported they were on a diet, 35.3 percent were actually already at a healthy weight. And 5.9 percent of those kids exhibited “extreme” unhealthy eating behaviors. On the other hand, about 22 percent of kids at healthy weights whose mothers emphasized nutritious choices reported that they were on a diet, and just 1.6 percent of them engaged in “extreme” unhealthy eating habits.
The study ultimately found that having just one parent talk about either weight or healthful eating affected kids’ likelihood of developing body issues and eating problems. It makes sense that teens are so vulnerable to comments about their weight from authority figures, since most eating disorders first appear in adolescence. Ninety five percent of the Americans who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25, and 86 percent of those people report that their unhealthy relationship with food began before they turned 20. And disordered eating is beginning to display at younger ages, partly because of the unrealistic body images that continue to be marketed to kids.
Other studies have found that anti-obesity campaigns that emphasize size — which nearly always have the end result of shaming overweight children — don’t actually help kids lose weight. Nevertheless, it remains a popular advertising tactic. Recently, a campaign warning against the harmful effects of childhood obesity Photoshopped a little girl in its ad to make her look fat.