In the past it was believed that discussing weight with children would decrease rates of obesity (a word defined by BMI standards). However, breakthrough studies in mental health and its association with food demonstrate that it does harm instead of helping. We now know that these conversations can lead to increased body dissatisfaction, binge eating, extreme weight control behaviors, depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, and bullying. These negative impacts also apply to children of smaller or even "normal" sizes. The short of it is, when it comes to a child's weight or size, just don't bring it up.
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The harmful effects of weight stigma
As children grow they experience growth spurts and hormonal fluctuations that lead to changes in their body shape and size. These are healthy and normal aspects of growing humans. During these transitions, the changing body should be embraced and normalized rather than stigmatized or shamed. "Weight stigma," or weight bias, is defined as discrimination or negative attitudes towards someone based on weight. It is a type of bias that a child may feel from medical providers, parents, other family members, schoolmates, and teachers. Continued exposure to weight stigma can lead to a harmful internalized weight stigma, defined as when someone becomes convinced that they are not worthy due to the judgements or negative views from others. Weight stigma harms all of us because it keeps us busy scrambling—either to change or maintain a certain body size —rather than focusing on other health behaviors or building healthy relationships.
So, how can we foster a weight neutral or body positive environment for our children?
Avoid any sort of weight talk with your child.
This means not speaking of their weight or size (no matter the size), your weight or size, or that of others. The first of these may be obvious but the latter are more difficult to recognize. We may catch ourselves commenting in the mirror about how we wish we were skinnier to fit into a pair of jeans or negatively comment on different areas of our body or comment on how "Sara's mom had gained a few pounds over the winter." And though it may seem trivial, discussing limitations of size, like how "Justin is very small" (and therefore can't play soccer as well as his teammates), are proven to be harmful rather than harmless. These types of indirect weight comments can influence how your child begins to see their own body, or convince them it is okay to comment on the bodies of others. It's important to teach young minds to respect their bodies, but also the bodies of others no matter the shape or size.
Promote competent eating behaviors.
Avoid putting a label on foods like good, bad, healthy, or unhealthy. Instead, enjoy all foods and allow your children to do the same. Avoid engaging a child in dieting tactics, calorie restriction, force feeding ("finish your plate"), or other control-focused eating behaviors. Aim to encourage the natural intuition children have around eating. Allow them to gauge their own hunger and fullness cues.
Aim to get more (joyful) movement as a family.Do not isolate your child to do an activity with the goal of weight loss. Explore activities that the whole family can do and enlist your child to help decide what that may be. Summer activities can include swimming, hiking or going to the neighborhood playground. Central Oregon winters can be tough, so check out the indoor trampoline parks, bowling alleys, and gymnastic centers if snow sports aren't your thing. Any activity that gets your family excited and moving is the ultimate goal here.
Studies show we underestimate the powerful effect our critical opinions have on our kids, even when we think we're helping them in the long run. This is no different when it comes to discussing matters of weight. A parent is most helpful to the long-term benefit of the child when they help children gain a strong acceptance of their body and self-worth, not by disparaging or attempting to use their weight as a motivator. This will ultimately translate to a stronger sense of self-worth and body-acceptance.
Want to learn more about weight neutral or body positive parenting?Check out The Full Bloom podcast, "Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming" by Ellyn Satter, and "Real Kids Come in All Sizes" by Kathy Kater. Books to read to your kiddos include, "Amanda's Big Dream" by Judith Matz, "A Kids Book about Body Image" by Rebecca Alexander, and "Your Body is Awesome: Body Respect for Children" by Sigrum Danielsdottir.
Natasha Dempsey is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) at Synergy Health and Wellness with over 10 years education and experience in clinical, hospital, outpatient, and weight management nutrition settings. At Synergy she supports clients of all ages in improving metabolic health, and their relationship with food and body. She is a momma to three year-old Jack with one on the way!
Wansink B, et al. (2017) "Don't eat so much: how parent comments relate to female weight satisfaction." Eat Weight Disord. 22(3):475-481. doi: 10.1007/s40519-016-0292-6. Epub 2016 Jun 6.
Golden NH, Schneider M, Wood C. (2016) AAP COMMITTEE ON NUTRITION: Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics. 138(3):e20161649
Pont SJ, Puhl R, Cook SR, et al. (2017) AAP SECTION ON OBESITY, THE OBESITY SOCIETY: Stigma Experienced by Children and Adolescents With Obesity. Pediatrics. 140(6): e20173034 on February 18, 2020