A few weeks ago Weight Watchers announced free summer memberships to teenagers—a move that was met with backlash by many dietitians and eating disorder specialists. Recent research supports most of the outrage expressed by health professionals, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates against diets or calorie restriction for children and teens due to their ineffectiveness and increased risk of developing unhealthy eating habits.
But the flip side is that many parents with overweight kids are now more confused than ever. What are the “right” ways to talk to your teen about weight loss—and how do you help them without hurting their feelings or self-image? Research suggests these are the most effective things parents can do.
Focus on Health, Not Weight
When talking to your teen, there’s a big difference between healthy and harmful conversations. Research suggests it’s essential that parents make health the focus—not weight or appearance. Parents should also be aware of the way they talk about their own bodies and appearance. Instead, focus on health, health improvements, and the positives that come from adopting those—like more energy, increased strength or stamina, better sleep, or meeting a physical activity goal.
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Why: Bringing up a teen’s weight or a perceived need to lose weight is often interpreted as something is “wrong” with them, and the suggestion of dieting by a parent appears to have no positive impact on weight loss. In fact, some studies correlate it with weight gain in teens. Furthermore, conversations between parents and teens that focused on weight or appearance (instead of healthy eating habits) were associated with a greater risk of the teen developing unhealthy eating habits.
Ditch the Diet, but Incorporate Healthy Habits
Calorie restriction isn’t effective for adults so why should we expect it to work for teens? New research suggests it’s more important to focus on food quality than counting calories, and the best way to do this is to encourage small gradual changes to food intake and activity.
Experiment with recipes, try new foods, and involve family members in cooking and meal planning. Find activities that are enjoyable, and encourage them because they’re fun and make the body feel better. Our bodies were designed to move every day to stay healthy—not for the sole purpose of losing weight.
Why: Not only is dieting ineffective, but the American Academy of Pediatrics shared several studies in their 2016 Clinical Report in which teen dieting (focused on calorie restriction) was associated with weight gain—not loss—as well as the development of disordered eating habits.
The Washington Post sums the scenario up well with a quote from Sandra Aamondt, neuroscientist and author of Why Diets Make Us Fat: “It’s crazy as a society that we have chosen to focus on weight loss rather than improving fitness and nutrition, which are easier and more important.”
Support, but Don’t Police
Restricting food or putting certain foods “off-limits” for the purpose of weight loss is never a good idea, but especially when it comes to kids and teens. While it is the parents responsibility to limit unhealthy foods and set an example of healthy eating, this doesn’t mean policing intake—which often ends up being counter-productive. Instead, support your teen by making healthy food options readily available and modeling healthy eating behaviors.
Why: Numerous studies suggest negative effects on health and on a child’s relationships with food when parents restrict food or pressure kids to eat certain foods. A 2014 study looking at teen weight practices suggests that parental food restriction contributes to disordered eating habits, as well as weight gain—not weight loss.
Practice the Same Healthy Habits You’re Encouraging
Before you start overhauling your child’s health, consider what example you’re setting for them. Parents ultimately lay the groundwork for kids’ and teens’ lifestyle habits. Even though they may seem to pay little attention to parents’ activities, kids will adopt the behaviors they’ve seen parents and caregivers model.
Why: A 2011 study suggested that the adoption of healthy eating and activity habits by parents had the greatest influence on teens’ weight and lifestyle habits—even when compared to parents and teens making changes together. To take a little pressure off parents, remember that the goal in modeling health behaviors isn’t perfection. Instead, it’s about balance.
Make Health a Family Affair
Gone are the days of “diet foods” or special weight loss meals and shakes. All foods fit into a healthy diet (yes, even the occasional piece of cake!), and it’s recommended that every member of the family make smart food choices and get regular activity—no matter their age or weight status.
Why: Singling out family members isn’t effective or supportive, but a family approach to healthy living is productive. A 2014 article in Today’s Dietitian cites several studies that suggest that getting the whole family involved is much more effective than focusing on just the teen or parents.
Help Teens Connect the Health Dots
Tired, full of energy, content, bloated—help teens connect what their bodies are feeling to what they’ve eaten (or not eaten) to encourage them to start listening to their bodies more. When I teach childhood nutrition, I like to mention how we’re all born listening to our bodies: Infants eat when hungry (or cry to let someone know they’re hungry) and stop eating when they’re full. They don’t keep eating because there’s still milk in the bottle. But most of us lose touch with this as we adopt society’s expected meal times or we’re inundated with food availability and distractions.
Why: Connecting the scientific relationship between foods and the body takes the emotions out of eating. This is the basis for intuitive eating, a non-diet approach to improving health that’s not only associated with positive health outcomes, but also improved self-image, decreased use of unhealthy eating habits, and improved physical fitness.
The Bottom Line: Parents play a key role in supporting healthy lifestyle changes and should expect improvements to be gradual. Try to keep an open line of communication with your teen, be ready to listen, and connect them with resources that provide accurate nutrition information (like a dietitian) when they want to learn more.