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.
"I have plenty of patients who will talk about comments their parents made about their own bodies. Even years and years later, it stuck with them," she says. "That’s why you want to provide a healthy environment for your child."
Instead of "fat talk," comment about how good you feel when you eat healthy and exercise. Compliment your child on strong muscles or stamina and speed -- not on being thin. Also, teach them to know if they're eating because they're angry, stressed, sad, or feeling bad about themselves. Then you can come up with healthier ways to cope together.
How do you talk about your food choices? Resist making food the bad guy. Sometimes parents will say, "I wish I could have cake!" or "I don't want to eat these carrots." That puts food into "bad" and “good” groups. Sweets become forbidden foods you shouldn't have but want, which sometimes makes them even more attractive. Healthy foods become almost a punishment. A balanced approach is best. Teach your kids that there is room for dessert in healthy eating habits; just make sure you don't have dessert every day and keep the portions reasonable.
"The best role model would be a mom who chooses carrots some of the time and cake some of the time and doesn’t put labels on them," says Thomas. "You know if you ate cake all the time you'd be pretty sick. Just talk about what you're interested in eating, what you might like to have. Not 'I'm bad if I choose this food.'"
Offer non-food rewards. Likewise, don't use food as a punishment or a reward for yourself or your kids. If they get straight A's or make the team, go to the movies or bowling instead of out for ice cream.
Schwartz recalls a study she did on the topic several years ago. "Any time parents used food to control behavior -- like sending kids to bed without dinner -- [the people] we surveyed had greater problems with eating and weight than those who weren’t treated that way [as children]."