At some point, many tweens or teens talk about wanting to go on a diet. Maybe they don't like the way they look in their clothes, or they're influenced by friends or the ultra-thin models they see in magazines. If your child brings up dieting, it's a great chance to talk about healthy habits and see how your family can make healthy food and exercise choices together.
Whether your child's weight is healthy or unhealthy, it's important to explain why “dieting” isn't a good idea. Part of the issue with dieting is that it's something people view as a quick fix. People often cut the portions they eat to very small, unhealthy amounts, or they ban certain foods. When kids show an interest in being healthier, it’s important to steer the conversation away from dieting to adopting healthy habits they can keep up.
"You need to say it’s not healthy to go on drastic diets," says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, deputy director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. "It's always a bad idea to do something extreme -- to dramatically cut your calories or completely take out carbohydrates or fat. The fact that anything is extreme is always a bad idea. That just leads you down a bad road."
Some other things to teach your children:
- Dieting can make you feel tired, moody, and distracted. Instead, when you eat healthy foods, you feel good.
- People who diet when they're young are more likely to have weight problems and eating disorders as they get older.
- And, of course, if you don't eat enough of the right foods, your body doesn't get the nutrition it needs to give you energy for your day. Healthy food is fuel for your body.
If your child is overweight, it's a great idea to enlist the help of their doctor. If they’re talking about dieting, it shows they may want to make changes to their health habits or the way they look or feel. Working with their doctor will make sure you do it in the healthiest way.
Choose the Right Words, Rewards
When teaching your teen or tween about how to have a healthy relationship with food, you’ll also want to look at what you say and do.
Check how you talk about your body. Some women bond over talking about how "fat" they look. When moms say, "I look so fat in these jeans!" or "These clothes make me look fat," kids are listening. They can start to form negative ideas about their own bodies based on hearing their parents' comments.
Kids who are made to feel bad about their bodies may take comfort in eating food or develop other eating disorders. Jennifer Thomas, PhD, has seen it firsthand in some of the people she counsels. She is co-director of the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Almost Anorexic.