Raising healthy children – especially girls -- is challenging in an age when the media sets unrealistic standards about the perfect body. It's all too easy for children to fall prey to eating disorders or unhealthy preoccupations with weight, food, or body image.
While both mothers and fathers have tremendous influence on daughters and sons, it seems that good relationships between mothers and daughters are especially important for helping girls grow up with good eating habits, self-esteem, and a positive body image.
Consider a study published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. It found that teenage girls' desire to be thin or lose weight was based at least in part on their perception of what their mothers wanted for them. Girls in the study were more likely to diet if their moms had done so. A third of the girls in the study reported wanting to be thinner (only 8% of boys expressed this wish).
We all know that excess weight can contribute to health risks and disease, but being obsessed with weight can lead to some very serious conditions, such as anorexia or bulimia. The challenge, experts say, is to help our daughters find the right balance.
"It is a very delicate balance between promoting a healthy weight and not placing too much importance on body weight," says Evelyn Tribole, RD, author of the antidiet, self-help book, Intuitive Eating.
The key, experts say, is to choose lifestyle habits like healthy eating and regular exercise for reasons of good health -- not just to lose weight or fit into a special dress. Focus on the health benefits of these lifestyle changes to help free your daughter from thinking her self-worth is equated with her weight, Tribole says.
It's Never Too Early to Start
It's also important for parents to be good role models, experts say. That means watching what you say within earshot of your impressionable daughters, from a very young age. (I recently overheard a 4-year-old girl tell her mom she didn't want to eat a cookie because "it will make me fat.")
"Moms have to be careful of not only what they say to their daughters but also their body language," says clinical psychologist Peggy Elam, PhD. "Little girls pick up when mom complains about her own weight, makes comments about others or shows her fat bias through expressive body language."
Be aware of your own dieting practices, and your beliefs and prejudices about weight, and keep them to yourself so you don't set your daughter up for a lifetime of dieting in pursuit of an unrealistic body shape, advises Elam.
"Girls restrict their food intake, and when they are unsuccessful at attaining their dream weight, they become depressed and feel like failures, which sets up feelings of low self-esteem," Elam says.
Elam's advice? Don't focus on meeting external standards, but help your girls be the best they can be.
Establishing Good Eating Habits
Experts say that the best place to start helping your daughter establish good eating habits that will last a lifetime is at the family dinner table.
It can be difficult to get everyone in the family to the dinner table at one time, what with lessons, team practices, and work schedules. But research shows that eating as a family has great benefits for kids of all ages, from better nutrition to improved family dynamics.
"It fosters good communication and an opportunity for the family to bond, connect and feel the love and support." says Elam.
Eating together is a unifying experience for the family. It's also a chance for parents to serve as role models in manners, social skills, and healthy food choices.
Planning, shopping, and preparing meals also provide opportunities for mothers and children to bond. Spending time in the kitchen with your daughter or son allows you to talk together and work as a team, and helps your children learn more about food while encouraging their independence and self-esteem.
House Rules Can Help
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that teens tended to make healthier food choices -- like choosing fruits and vegetables over sweets -- when their parents established simple household eating rules. Kids with the healthiest diets lived in homes where healthy snacks, vegetables at dinner, and fruit at breakfast were encouraged, and sweets, desserts, and soft drinks limited but not forbidden.
"Being a good role model for healthy eating, providing a healthful food environment with plenty of nutritious options, and not making sweets 'the forbidden fruit' are key to helping your children develop good eating habits," says Tribole.
Teach your children the recommended servings from the U.S. government's food pyramid (at mypyramid.com) and let them get involved in setting their own personal goals to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Diets Don't Work
With 17% of kids classified as overweight, how can a mother help her overweight daughter lose weight to improve her health -- while not becoming obsessed with food or body image?
Forget about putting her on a diet, the experts say. Instead, help your daughter learn how to manage her hunger, make healthy food choices, and be the expert of her own body.
"Kids and teens who routinely go on and off diets, or engage in yo-yo dieting, end up gaining weight over time," warns Tribole.
In fact, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that frequent dieters ended up gaining more than two extra pounds per year. The researchers found that putting kids on restrictive diets promoted unhealthy eating habits. Dieters in the study were more likely than others to binge-eat and to feel that their eating was out of control.
That's why it's best to help your daughter make small changes in her lifestyle that she can live with for the long term.
"When food becomes an emotional issue, it can lead to eating disorders," says Tribole.
Building a Better Body Image
If you judged by the girls you see on television and between the covers of teen magazines, you might think all females wear clothing in single-digit sizes. In reality, of course, girls (and boys) come in all shapes and sizes. (And thanks to a few ad campaigns like Dove's Healthy Body, the media are starting to send the message that healthy, beautiful females aren't necessarily rail-thin.)
Experts advise talking frankly with your daughter about different body types, about how genetics can't be altered, and about how she can still be healthy and lovely in her own way.
"Compliment your daughter on things not associated with her beauty or body, to help her realize how much you value who she is, not her size or physical beauty," advises Tribole.
Young girls also face pressure to be thin from their friends. The best mom in the world can't trump the influence of a teen's peers. But a mother can tune into what is going on at school, with her daughter's friends, and the world around her.
"Moms need to help the child identify feelings she is having, and help her love herself through open communications," Elam says.
Tips for Healthy Eating
Dealing with picky eaters while trying to serve as a role model for healthy eating habits can be stressful. Experts offer these tips to help keep family mealtimes healthy and happy:
- Encourage your children to get involved in meal preparation. The best conversations occur when you are doing something together -- like baking cookies.
- Serve meals and snacks in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere.
- Don't encourage overeating by forcing kids to clean their plates.
- Let younger kids feed themselves by serving bite-sized, easy-to-manage foods.
- Let your child regulate her own food intake. Most kids will eat when hungry and stop when full. This is a critical connection that will be very useful in managing weight as your child grows up.
- Don't coax, play games, or try to force your child to eat. Simply make nutritious foods available, and let your child decide what to eat and how much.
- Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad." All foods can fit into a healthy diet.
- Stock the house with healthy foods. Limit sweets, but don't ban them, or they will become the "forbidden fruit" -- and thus potential binge foods.
- Encourage physical activity and limit TV and computer time.
When They Leave the Nest
College represents a world of freedom, hard work, late nights, late mornings, new friends – and, potentially, binges on alcohol and unhealthy food. But children who have established good eating habits at home will be more likely to make smart food choices at college and avoid gaining the dreaded "freshman 15."
Here are some tips your daughter can use to help her make smart choices away from home:
- Keep a diary of food intake and physical activity.
- Don't skip meals, especially breakfast.
- Keep tabs on mindless eating while studying or watching television.
- Be careful in the dining halls where unlimited portions are hard to resist, especially desserts.
- Take a nutrition class.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Stock your dorm room with healthy snacks: low-fat yogurts, low-calorie drinks, and lite popcorn.
- Find ways to maintain fitness, perhaps by taking a class or joining a team