No Talking to Teens About Their Weight

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Parents dealing with a teen who is considerably overweight or underweight often cajole, plead and frankly harp on them to do something about their diet. But experts now say the best way to deal with waistline issues in teens is not talking about their weight at all. Guidelines for pediatricians now emphasize focusing on positive, healthy lifestyle instead of numbers of the bathroom scale.

Clearly, years of nagging at teens have not been effective. For many, obesity is a large – pun intended – issue. Conversely, anorexia nervosa and bulimia continue to be a problem with many who take dieting to the extreme. Promoting the happy medium, and a healthy relationship with food, is the gist of the new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics for doctors and parents.

Published Aug. 21 online in “Pediatrics,” he guidelines are based on evidence that physicians and parents can stave off problems at both extremes of the weight spectrum by encouraging a healthy, balanced lifestyle. The recommendations urge avoiding directing teens’ attention to dieting or body image.

The guidelines feature five evidence-based strategies for doctors and parents to use to help teenagers develop health habits and therefore avoid eating issues resulting in being too thin or too heavy. The emphasis is guidelines for all teens, not just those who are known to have a problem since many may not be excessively thin or fat, but are developing bad habits that could hurt them in the long run.

Three of the recommendations address behaviors parents and health care professionals should avoid: These include not encouraging the adolescent to diet; avoiding “weight talk,” whether it deals with the teen’s or their own weight; and never teasing youngsters about their body or weight. Two recommendations promote positive behaviors like eating regular meals as a family and encouraging both balanced meals and a regular exercise regimen. The idea is to focus on good habits, not weight.

Scientific evidence shows that dieting is bad news for teenagers, according to Neville Golden, MD, a Stanford University School of Medicine professor of pediatrics who served as the lead author on the guidelines. For instance, doctors have found that teens who are dieting in 9th grade are far more likely (as much as three times more) to be overweight than other students before graduating. Additionally, calorie counting often leads to unbalanced, nutrient-deprived diets that can lead to eating disorders and physical ailments. “It’s not unusual for us to see young people who have rapidly lost a lot of weight but are not healthy; they end up in the hospital attached to a heart monitor with unstable vital signs,” Golden said.

Parents need to watch negative comments about weight, whether about themselves or someone else. For example, parents who talk about their own bodies and weights have been shown to inadvertently encourage kids to have more “body dissatisfaction, which we see in half of teen girls and a quarter of boys,” Golden said.

Parents should “lead by example,” according to the experts. Teens with unhealthy eating habits or weight problems are often perpetuating their parents’ problems. Hence, the guidelines emphasize healthy, balanced family meals (so everyone is eating right) and no talking to teens about their weight or anyone else’s.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

Pediatrics: Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents
Stanford University Medical Center: One approach can prevent teen obesity, eating disorders, new guidelines say
U.S. News & World Report: To Keep Teens Slim, Focus on Health not Weight
Slate: Dieting and Weight Talk Are Bad for All Adolescents, Says American Academy of Pediatrics

Photo courtesy of 55158656@N06 via Flickr Page, Creative Commons license.