Tips for talking to your teen about body image, weight loss and healthy eating

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“Are you sure you want to eat that?” For many teens, adolescence is a period marked by self-consciousness about body image, and it can be daunting for parents to find the right words to say when talking to teens about maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is especially true in cases where kids are struggling with their weight and eating habits.

Research shows that it is common practice for parents to encourage their adolescents to diet. In fact, nearly 40 percent of parents regularly recommend dieting to their children. Frequently, parental recommendations come from a place of concern. Unfortunately, these good intentions and recommendations to diet are not associated with improved health outcomes, and can even have the opposite effect.

Dieting has been shown to increase the risk for both obesity and eating disorders among adolescents. Recent studies also show an association between parental encouragement to diet and unhealthy eating behaviors, including binge eating, as well as lower self-esteem and poorer body image.

So, how can parents address the touchy subjects of weight and body image with their teens in ways that are helpful to them? Here is a list of quick tips that can help guide communication between you and your teen when it comes to body image, weight loss, and nutrition:

Instead of encouraging your child to restrict quantity of food or avoid certain food groups, model healthy behaviors with family meals. Structured meal times are not just a time for family bonding. They have also been shown to have meaningful health benefits, including:

  • Decreased disordered eating behaviors in girls, including decreased purging behaviors
  • Improved dietary quality — increased intake of fruits, veggies, grains, and fiber

Instead of talking with your child about his or her weight, which has been linked to being overweight and eating disorders, try focusing on healthful eating behaviors, such as increasing the amounts of fruit and vegetables in their diet.

Instead of using humor as a tool to communicate with your child about his or her weight, skip the teasing (weight teasing is linked with a nearly doubled risk for being overweight 5 years later) and try listening to your teen and gauging their feelings about their weight.

This can help you learn about their own body image. In some cases, you may even learn that your child would benefit from having a counselor to speak with.

Of course, there is an art to communicating with teenagers about body image, and there is no one approach that is effective for all teens. That said, there is so much to gain by removing guilt and shame from the equation and creating a positive and supportive environment.

Susan A. Gutierrez, M.D., is a pediatric resident and Lawrence B. Friedman, M.D., is the director of adolescent medicine at the University of Miami Health System’s Department of Pediatrics. For more information, visit UHealth.com/patients/pediatrics.



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