How Diet Talk Can Harm Your Future Grandchildren

... and what you can do to break the cycle.

Posted Apr 03, 2018

Photo by London Scout on Unsplash
Source: Photo by London Scout on Unsplash

Did you know that nearly 40% of parents encourage their children to diet? This starts with children as young as 2 years old. While parents may be well intentioned, research suggests that encouragement to diet is associated with harmful outcomes including unhealthy weight control behaviors, dieting, binge eating, lower self-esteem, and a poor body image in children and adolescents. That’s why guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016 explicitly discourage dieting in adolescents.  And now, new research suggests that encouraging your teen to diet may not only harm your teen, but can affect your future grandchildren as well.

A study by Berge et al (2018) examined 556 participants from the longitudinal Project Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults (Project-EAT) when they were adolescents (under age 19) and again 15 years later when they were parents of at least one child aged 2 years or older.

The researchers found that parent encouragement to diet in adolescence was associated with:

  • BMI in the “overweight” or “obese” categories both in adolescence and 15 years later as parents
  • Increased unhealthy weight-related behaviors, dieting, and binge eating both during adolescence and 15 years later as parents
  • Lower body satisfaction both during adolescence and 15 years later as parents
  • Increased risk of engaging in encouragement to diet with their own children
  • Increased risk of talking to their own children about their children’s weight
  • More complaining about their own weight in the presence of family members and more weight-focused talk in their family as parents

Berge et al (2018) concluded that parents’ encouraging their children to diet appears to be passed down throughout generations. Adolescents who were encouraged to diet became parents who encouraged their children to diet and who had more weight-focused home environments. This intergenerational transmission of encouragement to diet likely occurs through both direct communication and parent modeling. Prior research has consistently suggested problematic outcomes associated with dieting in adolescence and parent encouragement to diet including increased risk of binge eating, unhealthy weight control behaviors, dieting, lower self-esteem, and poor body image. It is likely that these harmful outcomes are also being passed down through generations.

Are you ready to break the cycle? Here are a few tips to create a healthy diet-free home environment for you, your children, and future generations of your family.

  • Ditch the diet. Children model parents' behavior and if they see you dieting and obsessing about your weight, they are likely to mirror the same behaviors.
  • Banish the weight-talk. We may think that our children don’t hear the little comments we make about our bodies, the ways that we admonish ourselves after we’ve eaten something “bad,” or ask: “do I look fat in this?” Even if we think they aren’t listening, children are like little sponges absorbing all of our body-hatred. And potentially passing it down to their children as well.
  • Model body compassion. As I said above, children take in what we put out in the environment. If we focus on treating our bodies (and ourselves) with compassion and respect, our kids will likely follow our cue.
  • Focus on a healthy family at any size. Research suggests that shifting our focus away from the numbers on the scale towards a more global perspective of health can improve both mental and physical wellbeing. This includes eating delicious foods that make our bodies feel good, being active in fun pleasurable ways, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress.

Alexis Conason is a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of psychological issues related to bariatric surgery, overeating disorders, body image dissatisfaction, and sexual issues. She is the founder of The Anti-Diet Plan (sign up for her free 30 day course). Follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

References

Berge JM, Winkler MR, Larson N, et al. Intergenerational transmission of parent encouragement to diet from adolescence into adulthood. Pediatrics. 2018; 141 (1): e20172955