Health

You Can’t Talk to Girls About Their Weight

With alarming new obesity numbers just released, the solutions are (not) hard to swallow

What will it take to reverse this trend?

Stop talking to your daughter about her weight. It’s not helping.

We are a nation heavier than ever. New statistics this week published in JAMA show an alarming increase in the rate of obesity, among women specifically. More than 40 percent of U.S. women now fall into that category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to 35 percent of men.

Among U.S. children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years, the prevalence of obesity now stands at 17 percent — and extreme obesity at 5.8 percent. The incidence has leveled off for children aged 2 to 11 years, but that’s not at all the case for kids aged 12 to 19 years.

“The obesity epidemic in the United States is now three decades old, and huge investments have been made in research, clinical care, and development of various programs to counteract obesity,” Jody W. Zylke, M.D., deputy editor, JAMA, and Howard Bauchner, M.D., editor in chief, JAMA, wrote in an editorial on the two new studies in the current issue of the esteemed medical publication.

“However, few data suggest the epidemic is diminishing. Perhaps it is time for an entirely different approach, one that emphasizes collaboration with the food and restaurant industries that are in part responsible for putting food on dinner tables,” Zylke and Bauchner added.

Here’s another suggestion: Stop talking to your daughter about her weight. It’s not helping. Really.

A new study looking at women, their weight, and the impact of what was said to them when they were younger just wrapped up at Cornell Food and Brand Lab in New York.

Lead researcher Brian Wansink, PhD., author of the book “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions,” said he was inspired to do the study because he has three daughters — and he wanted to be sure he was encouraging them to be healthy in the best way possible. What he quickly learned was that even he might not be doing it right.

Women who recall comments from their parents about their weight are more prone to being overweight as adults.

His team found that women who recall comments from their parents about their weight are more prone to being overweight as adults and less satisfied with their weight than other people.

“Perhaps they’re more sensitive about how they look and about pleasing people than boys are, but we’re not sure,” he told LifeZette.

“Regardless, seeing the pronounced relationship between girls who remember their parents saying something and how they felt about food, how they felt about their body, and their weight later on — it made me, overnight, change how I talk to my daughters.”

For the study, 501 women between the ages of 20 and 35 years old were surveyed about their body image and asked to recall how frequently their parents commented on their weight.

Those with a healthy BMI were 27 percent less likely to recall their parents commenting on their weight and 28 percent less likely to recall parents commenting on eating too much — compared to women whose BMI indicated they were overweight.

Also important to note: Both overweight and healthy weight women who recalled their parents’ comments about their weight as youths were less satisfied with their weight as adults.

Wansink said it was obvious how much weight-related comments damaged these women’s body image regardless of weight.

“If you’re worried about your child’s weight, avoid criticizing them or restricting food. Instead, nudge healthy choices and behaviors by giving them freedom to choose for themselves and by making the healthier choices more appealing and convenient,” Wansink recommended. “After all, it’s the choices that children make for themselves that will lead to lifelong habits.”

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Pat Barone, a certified professional coach who specializes in weight loss, believes that if a child has a problem with weight, it’s time for the parents to look at themselves.

“Parents who zip through fast food restaurants every day, and rarely take the phone or game controllers away from a sedentary child, don’t have the right to criticize a child’s weight. The parent needs to change. Very few children who have adequate levels of good nutrition and activity are overweight, although there are some exceptions for rare medical conditions,” Barone told LifeZette.

Young girls just need to toughen up, say some people. And perhaps they do. But this solution has its complications. In 15 years of coaching clients on weight loss, Barone said every single client with a serious weight problem has traced their shame about their body back to parental disapproval.

Related: How Our Kids Can Beat Obesity

“Shame — and young children are easily shamed because they take things personally — is a toxic layer that distorts everything. A child doesn’t hear, ‘You have a little extra body fat and that’s easily rectified by adjusting activity levels.’ They hear, ‘YOU are fat. YOU are undesirable, unwanted, embarrassing, wrong or broken.'”

Unconditional love, the experts agree, means accepting where the child is at the moment.

“Parents should always seek to provide good, solid nutrition. Do not allow a lot of processed snacks, sugary foods or soda in the house. Give children a choice, whenever possible, of several fruits and vegetables with every meal,” said Barone.

Parents should also be active themselves, eat healthfully, and lead by example. Body judgment just doesn’t work as long-term motivation.

“I’d much rather a parent say, ‘I’ve been working very hard today. I think it’s time to get outside for a walk,’ instead of ‘I’m so fat I can’t wear those new jeans,’ or ‘I’m not going to that party. I’m too fat,'” said Barone.

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