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Moms Influence Teen Dieting, Weight

Parents' Best Bet: Be Healthy Role Models for Kids, Researchers Say
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 6, 2005 -- Teens may look aloof, but they quietly notice what their mothers seem to think about their weight.

Their perceptions -- correct or not -- often affect adolescent interest in dieting, according to a study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The study shows that teens are more likely to want to be slimmer and to diet frequently if they correctly believed that their mothers want them to be thin or lean.

The researchers who worked on the study include Alison Field, ScD, of Harvard Medical School, Boston's Brigham & Women's Hospital, and Children's Hospital in Boston.

Weighty Beliefs

Field and colleagues gave surveys to more than 9,000 girls and boys aged 11-18. The student's moms also took part.

The surveys covered body image and weight. Topics for adolescent girls included:

  • How important is it to you to be thin?
  • How often in the past year have you dieted to lose weight or not gain weight?
  • How much effort have you made in the last year to try to look like girls or women on TV, in movies, or in magazines?
  • How important is it to your mom that you be thin?

The boys' surveys were worded a bit differently. Their questions focused on not being fat.

"Male subjects are more likely to be focused on wanting to increase muscle tone rather than being thin," the researchers write.

Moms were asked how often in the past year they had wanted to or tried to lose weight.

Many Young Dieters

Many adolescents -- especially girls -- expressed a desire to be thinner.

A third of the girls reported thinking frequently about wanting to be thinner. So did 8% of the boys.

Nearly one in 10 girls (8%) had dieted frequently in the previous year. Frequent dieting was defined as dieting every day or two to six times weekly.

Girls were also more likely to diet if their moms had done so in the past year, the study shows.

Interest in Dieting

Adolescents voiced more interest in being thin (for girls) or not fat (for boys) if they thought that their moms wanted them to be thin or lean.

Girls were particularly sensitive to those perceptions. Even girls who were totally wrong in thinking that their moms wanted thin kids tended to express heightened interest in dieting.

That's in comparison to girls who knew their moms didn't mind if they weren't thin.

The same wasn't true for boys. They only reported thinking a lot about not being fat if it truly mattered to their moms.

Walking a Fine Line

Many adults and children face weight problems. Extra pounds can bring health risks (though not everyone who is overweight has poor health). But obsessing about weight isn't healthy, either.

"High levels of concern with weight are associated with the initiation of using unhealthy weight control behaviors," the researchers write.

"It is essential to strike a balance between promoting a healthy weight and not placing too much emphasis on the importance of weight," they continue.

Researcher's Tips for Parents

Field spoke with WebMD earlier this year about how parents can help kids reach a healthy weight.

Her new study includes these tips for parents:

  • Know that your dieting and beliefs about weight trickle down to your kids.
  • Be a healthy role model.
  • Make physical activity and good nutrition a part of daily life.
  • Don't just exercise or eat healthfully to lose weight.

Doctors should also emphasize the benefits of physical activity that aren't related to weight, such as self-esteem, the researchers note.

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