The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released new guidelines for talking to teens about their weight, and the main takeaway is simple: Don’t.
“The focus should be on a healthy lifestyle rather than on weight,” reads the report, “Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents,” which will appear in the September issue of Pediatrics.
Roughly 34 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are now classified as overweight or obese, according to the report, but eating disorders are also a serious threat. Disordered eating is, in fact, the third most common chronic condition in adolescents, after obesity and asthma.
How to tackle one without triggering the other?
Parents and health care professionals should do the following, the report states:
▪ Discourage dieting, skipping of meals or the use of diet pills. Instead, encourage and support healthful eating and physical activity behaviors that can be maintained on an ongoing basis.
▪ Promote a positive body image. Do not encourage body dissatisfaction or focus on body dissatisfaction as a reason for dieting.
▪ Encourage more frequent family meals.
▪ Encourage families not to talk about weight but rather to talk about healthful eating and being active to stay healthy.
▪ Inquire about a history of mistreatment or bullying in overweight and obese teenagers.
▪ Carefully monitor weight loss in an adolescent who needs to lose weight to ensure the adolescent does not develop the medical complications of semi-starvation.
“All of this needs to start with the foundation of children understanding you love them, regardless of what they may or may not look like, and what they may or may not weigh,” said Jancey Wickstrom, site director at The Renfrew Center of Chicago, an eating disorder treatment clinic in Northbrook, Ill.
“If you tell them they’re overweight, they’re certainly not going to bring to you that their peers are teasing them because they’ll be afraid you agree,” Wickstrom added. “The first thing you have to establish is unconditional love, regardless of their size or appearance.”
That means avoiding frequent comments about your own weight and the weight of your friends and family as well.
“When kids hear their parents talk about friends or family members gaining or losing weight, it sends a clear message that the most interesting thing about those people is their physical size,” Wickstrom said. “We want our kids to know they’re interesting and important no matter what they look like.”
If parents are worried about their kids’ weight, Wickstrom said, they can frame the conversation in terms that have nothing to do with the scale.
“You’re not talking about numbers,” she said. “Talk openly about the benefits of exercise and a variety of foods. Talk about what your body does for you, and in what ways you can make your body feel better, so it does more for you. ‘Do you like to go skateboarding with your friends? How can we make sure your body feels good when you do that.’”
And resist the temptation to push diets in your household.
“Dieting is a risk factor for both obesity and eating disorders,” the study states.
Girls who dieted in ninth grade were three times more likely to be overweight in 12th grade, compared with nondieters, according to the report, and teens who restricted their food intake and skipped meals were 18 times more likely to develop eating disorders than those who didn’t diet.
Above all, Wickstrom said, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“A registered dietitian or eating disorder specialist can help you make the right decisions,” Wickstrom said. “Our society is so weight-obsessed and appearance-obsessed, and these are real topics parents have to deal with every day. There are definitely resources available to help parents navigate those tricky situations.”