How do you help a child reach a healthy weight? For the last decade, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been suggesting that obese teens try weight loss surgery, medications, commercial programs (think Weight Watchers), and extremely low-calorie diets. Thankfully, the influential organization flipped the script last month, releasing new guidelines that attempt to prevent body shame and disordered eating by emphasizing healthy lifestyles, rather than weight goals.
“Eating disorders (EDs) are the third most common chronic condition in adolescents, after obesity and asthma,” the 2016 guidelines explain. “[S]ome adolescents may misinterpret what ‘healthy eating’ is and engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as skipping meals or using fad diets in an attempt to ‘be healthier,’ the result of which could be the development of an ED.” (The publication also notes that USDA-mandated nutrition facts list daily values based on a 2,000-calorie diet, while active adolescents typically require at least 2,200–2,800 calories per day, and often more.)
Many physicians, nutritionists, and wellness coaches are giving the new guidelines a big thumbs-up. “Teaching [children and teens] to diet is going to teach them that eating is a battle—something to be fought and won—and that your body is not a friend you can trust, but a foe to conquer,” says body-positive health coach Lacy Davis. “I honestly ask, if one is taught to fight their body before it develops, how can they possibly have a good relationship with food or weight?”
So, Portland parents… What should you know about talking to your children about health and weight? Here are five tips from the AAP:
Family meals. Make ‘em happen when possible! Daily family meals have been shown to protect against both EDs and obesity, thanks to healthy choices made and modeled by parents, as well as the opportunity for interaction and early intervention between parents and teens.
Healthy body image. First, the bad news: roughly half of teen girls and one-quarter of teen boys are dissatisfied with their bodies, which can lead to disordered eating. The good news? Parents who encourage exercising and eating for health, rather than weight loss, are more likely to have kids who express body satisfaction.
Weight talk. Again, focus the conversation on health instead of weight. Studies have shown that when family members make comments about weight—including their own weight—children are at higher risk of both eating disorders and weight gain.
Weight teasing. Yeah, none of that. Although one study reported that 40 percent of early adolescent girls are teased about their size, weight-based teasing by family members can lead to binge eating, weight gain, and disordered weight-control behaviors in children of all genders.
Dieting. Please, please, please don’t push your children towards diets; studies have found that teens who diet are 5–18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder and 2–3 times more likely to be overweight.
“There is absolutely nothing that makes a person obsessed with food like restriction,” Davis says. “So, teaching people to eat slowly, to taste their food, and to enjoy the process of nourishment is going to give them a healthy respect for what they're taking in.”