Need Another Reason Not to Diet?

How About What Your Dieting Does to Your Kids?

Posted May 30, 2014

 “My parents hired a dietician [when I was] in second grade because [they thought] I was overweight.”

-          Dylan, 23-year-old part-time Target employee

When Dylan walked into my office, I honestly wondered what he was doing there. I specialize in helping people who struggle with weight and body image issues. Dylan didn’t seem to fit into either of those categories. Yet, here he was - 6’4”, 230 pounds, with a fairly large, muscular build. Clearly he didn’t need to lose weight. But he thought he did – at least 30 pounds to be exact. And then he told me about the dietician his parents had hired when he was 8 years old and it all started to make sense.

Unfortunately, Dylan isn’t the only person who’s walked into my office with stories of family … issues, for lack of a better word. There was Brandy who dieted with her mother throughout her adolescence and who still periodically calls her mother for dieting advice. Lindsey, who didn’t want to be the “girl who let herself go” like her sister had. Karla, whose mother called her grandparents, with whom Karla was living, with instructions on what to feed her every day (Note: Karla was not a child). Tasha, who refused to visit her parents because she didn’t want them to see that she had gained weight. Kyle, who despite the fact that he sought me out, was afraid that I was judging him because his mother had an eating disorder, a fact I wasn’t even aware of until he blurted it out. Last but not least, Catherine, a concerned mother of a two-year-old who wanted to make sure she was feeding her daughter Kylie the “right” things so Kylie wouldn’t become overweight like Catherine’s mother had.

Even I received mixed messages about my weight during my childhood. I hardly ever remember my mother eating when I was a child – she wasn’t underweight; she just never seemed to eat with the family because she was always jumping up and down seeing to our needs. At the same time, she made sure she had a good “meat and potatoes” kind of meal on the table and loved to make homemade cookies, cake, and brownies for me and my father. I later learned that is not uncommon behavior for women who are unhappy with their weight. Studies have shown that when mothers diet, they may feed their children the very foods the mothers themselves are craving – usually high fat, high carb delights. While my mother’s behavior was perfectly normal, at least according to the research, it wasn’t all that healthy. And it backfired, at least where I was concerned. Instead of feeling free to eat all of those home-baked goodies, I began to worry about my weight. In this case, like so many others, actions do speak louder than words. A friend of mine once asked me, “So telling my daughter that weight doesn’t matter while she sees me berating myself as I weigh in every morning probably isn’t good parenting, right?” Bingo. And that’s the heart of the matter: mothers' fear of fat is the single best predictor of children's negative stereotypes toward overweight peers,and you can bet they internalized those negative feelings.

And there’s the real truth of the matter. “If momma ain’t happy, nobody happy.” That old adage is especially true for vulnerable adolescents. The impact of maternal eating disorders and disturbances is much stronger than that of fathers and is more commonly directed at daughters than sons. In essence, the more dissatisfied a mother is with her body and the more extreme weight-loss behaviors (e.g., fasting, crash dieting, skipping meals) she engages in, the more likely the daughter is to report body dissatisfaction and use extreme weight-loss behaviors herself. But don’t think boys get a free ride; they don’t.

“My mom is really fit… She is [still] concerned about my weight. She asks me about it whenever I talk to her.”

- Dylan, 23-year-old part-time Target employee


            And that brings us back to Dylan. At 23, living away from home in a different state, Dylan is still concerned about what his parents think about his weight and eating habits. Some kids rebel when they leave home, engaging in activities that were restricted or forbidden at home. Not Dylan, he didn’t lose the lesson that his mother inadvertently taught him – weight conscious parents mean weight conscious kids. So while some mothers (and fathers) who diet gift their families with the very foods they forbid themselves, other mothers restrict their children’s eating, especially if they think that child is overweight. However, the more mothers restrict their children’s food intake, the less able children are to recognize their own hunger and fullness and subsequently, the more likely the children are to overeat – either because they don’t know they are full or out of rebellion – making them more at risk for being overweight or obese. Furthermore, acute and chronic caloric restriction alters the way your body produces the hunger hormones (ghrelin, insulin) as well as the fullness hormone (leptin), making you want to eat more – especially more of any foods that were restricted

Weight Loss Tip: Be a Role Model for Your Kids: Fake It Til You Make It

            Children pay much more attention to what we do than what we say. The same is likely true for spouses, parents, friends, colleagues, etc. One of the best things you can do is to eat every meal as though your kids were watching, knowing they will mimic you. So if you don’t want your kids to engage in certain food behaviors (i.e., food restriction, labeling foods as good or bad), don’t do those behaviors yourself.

About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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