How a focus on dieting in kids can impact generations

April 2, 2018

Stressing dieting over healthy eating in teenagers can cause lifelong weight and diet problems than can extend for generations.

Encouraging children to diet rather than to adopt healthy eating habits can have long-term consequences that span generations, according to a new report. The new study published in Pediatrics found that weight shaming, or a stress on dieting over healthy eating, can lead to a cycle of disordered eating and poor self-esteem.

Researchers polled parents who, as teenagers themselves, had been encouraged by their parents to diet, and found that not only were those parents more likely to be obese and have eating disorders, but they also were more likely to make the same mistake of stressing dieting over healthy eating with their own children.

“We already know from prior research that when parents talk about dieting or weight with their teenagers, this has an immediate influence on their [children’s] weight and weight-related behaviors, such as engaging in more unhealthy weight control behaviors,” says lead study author Jerica M. Berge, PHD, MPH, LMFT, CFLE, associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Minneapolis. “What we didn’t know yet is whether being told to go on a diet in adolescence was associated with long-term mental and physical health consequences into adulthood or whether telling your child to diet was passed from one generation to the next.”

There are many pressures for children and teenagers to lose weight throughout our culture and social media, and Weight Watchers recently contributed to the problem in a much-criticized move to offer a free, 6-week weight-loss program this summer for adolescents aged 13 to 17 years. The weight-loss company supported the program in a statement, claiming that it hopes to “help young people develop good habits at a critical age,” but advocacy groups, dieticians, and other stakeholders have criticized the move as placing too much emphasis on weight loss over a healthy lifestyle overall.

“The message in society is strong regarding childhood obesity and we need to help parents know what to do in their homes,” Berge adds. “Parents often feel guilt and responsibility for their child’s weight, and they want to do something. Sometimes what they do, for example, telling their child to go on a diet, has the opposite effect of what they were intending.”

Previous studies have detailed the harm that can come from parental encouragement to diet, but the new study reveals just how far that damage can reach. Berge and colleagues had previously found that 40% of parents report encouraging their child to diet, but the long-term effect of that advice was unclear. In this new longitudinal, population-based study called Project EAT (Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults), researchers polled adults who had been teenagers in 1998 to 1999. Surveys were collected throughout 2015 and 2016, and data show that parents who had been encouraged to diet as teenagers themselves had a higher risk of dieting, binge eating, and being overweight or obese even 15 years later, when compared with parents who were not pushed to diet as adolescents. Parents who were encouraged to diet in their youth also engaged in more unhealthy weight-loss methods and had low levels of body satisfaction, according to the report.

Parents themselves weren’t the only ones affected by the stress on dieting in their younger years. The study revealed that these parents also were more likely to encourage their own children to diet and complain about their own weight in front of their children.

The researchers conclude that promoting dieting in teenagers, whether through communication or modeling dieting behaviors, can lead to lifelong problems with weight and self-esteem, as well as to a high probability that those teenagers will pass unhealthy dieting messages to their own children.

“These findings suggest that parent encouragement to diet not only physically and emotionally affects the person experiencing encouragement to diet but also potentially shapes the values, beliefs, and weight-related practices that [the person] engages in and/or passes on to [his/her] own family through direct communication and parental modeling,” the researchers note. “Furthermore, the negative effects of parent encouragement to diet can compound over time, not only impacting the person directly receiving the messages, but also potentially hurting generations to come.”

So what are parents to do when their child is overweight? Berge says the key is to turn the focus of the conversation from weight loss to health promotion.

“It’s important for parents to understand the power of their own words,” Berge says. “This study suggested that when parents encouraged their adolescent child to go on a diet, the impact of their words had long-term consequences on their child’s health. In addition, their child was more likely to use the same words, such as ‘go on a diet,’ with [his/her] own children as an adult.”

Rather than stressing dieting, Berge says her previous research has shown that engaging in conversations about health, such as “eat healthy and you can have strong bones and muscles and your body can perform at its best,” rather than weight or dieting is more effective in managing weight and unhealthy eating habits.

The study also suggests that pediatricians can play a role in breaking this cycle by educating parents about the harmful effects of encouraging their children to diet.

“If a health provider sees a parent who was pressured to diet as an adolescent by [his/her] own parents, it would be important for the provider to share with the parent that pressuring to diet can be a cyclical pattern passed from one generation to the next,” Berge says. “This may help parents to self-reflect and see whether they have been caught in this pattern.”

Clinicians can help teach parents to focus on health promotion and eating healthy to make a strong body rather than focusing on dieting and weight loss alone, she explains.