There's a right way and a wrong way to persuade your adolescent to eat healthy and help avoid obesity, a new study suggests.
Pointedly connecting food with fatness or talking about needed weight loss is the wrong way and could even encourage unhealthy eating habits, researchers report.
Instead, discussions that focus on simply eating healthfully are less likely to send kids down this road, a new study shows.
"A lot of parents are aware of the obesity problem in the U.S -- it's everywhere you turn -- but they wonder how to talk about it with their children," said study lead author Dr. Jerica Berge of the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
She advises that parents "tell kids to eat more fruits and vegetables because eating them will make them healthy and strong. Don't connect these conversations to weight and size."
The study is published online June 24 in JAMA Pediatrics.
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in adolescents in the United States over the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This has had a profound effect on children's health, with condition formerly only seen in adults, such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, now being diagnosed in children.
The new study included survey data from more than 2,300 adolescents with an average age of about 14 and more than 3,500 parents.
Overall, the data showed, conversations about eating that focused on a child's supposed need to lose excess weight were linked to a higher risk of problem dieting and other unhealthy eating behaviors among adolescents.
On the other hand, parents who talked about healthy eating and living but did not focus on weight and size were less likely to have children who dieted or engaged in other unhealthy eating behaviors such as anorexia, binge eating or bulimia.
These benefits were seen in both overweight and normal weight teens, the study showed.
Overall, about 28 percent of moms and 23 percent of dads of kids who were not overweight said they had conversations that focused on healthy eating, while only 15 percent of moms and 14 percent of dads who had overweight children said they talked about health.
About 33 percent of moms and 32 percent of dads of non-overweight kids said they discussed weight and the need to lose weight; for overweight kids, that number rose to 60 percent of moms and 59 percent of dads.
Berge stressed that even when parents say all the right things about eating, it doesn't matter much if children see Mom and Dad ignoring their own advice.
It's "do as I do," she said. "Modeling does have a big role in showing kids the type of behavior that you want them to take on."
Also, Berge added, "these conversations have to happen way more than at dinner. They are not in-the-moment conversations, but ongoing ones."
Outside experts were quick to agree that focusing on health is more valuable than nagging kids about their weight and size.
"Telling people that they are fat or overweight is not in the best interest of the adolescent," said Dr. Ronald Feinstein, an adolescent medicine specialist at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "We need to focus on healthy lifestyle, and parents need to lead by example," he said. This includes appropriate meal planning and having healthy food available.
Sometimes this involves a little troubleshooting, Feinstein added.
"At a restaurant, quietly ask the server not to put the bread basket out, or hand out one slice to everyone and then have it removed, so it's the family making the decision and no one feels left out," he said. "Set an example and avoid putting kids in a position where they have to make poor choices."
Dr. Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness, in Washington, D.C., agreed that weight is not always an easy subject to broach with adolescents.
"Some parents would rather talk about sex and drugs than weight," he said.
"I always try to focus on health, not appearance," Kahan added. The new findings "lend further weight to the importance of finding careful loving, supportive and appropriate ways of discussing health with kids," he said.