Telling children to diet may have emotional and physical health consequences that affect future generations, according to a University of Minnesota study.
Adults who were told to diet in order to lose weight as children were more likely to have low body satisfaction later in life and to encourage their own kids to diet, the study says. Experts say parents can break this intergenerational cycle by encouraging children to practice healthy behaviors instead.
“I think the message is that … parents, your words matter and [your words] have strong power that stays with your kids until they grow up,” said University associate professor and study lead Jerica Berge.
The study used data from Project EAT, a longitudinal study that surveys adolescents over a period of 15 years. The data showed that when parents talked to their children about dieting to lose weight — which can disrupt kids' growth — the children were more likely to be obese and practice unhealthy behaviors, like binge eating and dieting, 15 years later, Berge said.
Adolescents are likely to continue this behavior because children model their parents’ behavior, she said.
“Parents basically act as a mirror for their kids,” said psychologist and author Carl Pickhardt.
Many children view their parents as safe and dependable, so parents often serve as a platform upon which a child can build their personality and values, he said.
However, parents are not the only reason children develop eating disorders or bad eating habits, said Jillian Lampert, chief strategy officer of The Emily Program Foundation.
The people whom kids interact with, societal expectations and psychological factors can also contribute to developing an eating disorder, she said.
Additionally, people who are rigid and compulsive may have a high risk of developing an eating disorder because their views on food may change throughout their lives, Lampert said.
Still, parents can be influential in preventing and treating eating disorders.
“Instead of saying, ‘Go on a diet,’ or ‘You need to lose weight,’ parents should have healthy conversations with their children,” Berge said.
Because of the prominence of childhood obesity, many parents are concerned about their children's weight and think they’re helping their children by suggesting dieting, Berge said.
Parents should focus on using helpful language to encourage children to act healthy, like, "Eat fruits and vegetables to make sure your muscles and bones are strong, and your body is performing its best," she said.
“Saying, ‘Go on a diet’ is just not working,” Berge said.