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Ask Dr. Bronwyn: Healthy Ways To Talk About Weight

Q: I’ve noticed that our 7-year-old daughter is gaining weight. My husband thinks we need to create a sweet-free house and put her on a diet. (This is obviously not a good idea.) I want us to talk to her, but I’m nervous that if we do this the wrong way, she could end up with food issues for life. — House Divided

Written By Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup
Photography Victoria Will

Dear House Divided,

Talking about weight is one of the trickiest topics in parenting, and you have to be careful not to bring your own emotional baggage into the conversation. Parents often ask me about how to talk about bodies and eating habits without creating animosity and power struggles, or worse, long-term damage. Even the most well-meaning comments to a child can be counterproductive: Weight-related attention and “helpful” advice can contribute to negative body image and lead to weight gain, binge eating, unhealthy weight control methods and eating disorders.

When it comes to all children’s eating habits and weight, parents should never badger, nag, preach, reward, bribe or even mention weight loss or weight gain. For girls especially, who are already exposed to messages about thinness and the value of appearance from a very early age, it’s especially destructive. Research has shown children as young as 6 start to worry about their looks.

Just as it’s critical to talk with your child about substance use, safe sex, Internet safety and stranger danger, it’s equally important to discuss eating and health. These kinds of conversations can be tricky, but there are many ways you can motivate children to make healthy eating choices on their own. Here are strategies every parent should know.

Don’t ban sweets.

If you make any foods off-limits, you end up making them coveted. Research shows that children whose food is highly restricted at home are far more likely to binge eat when they have unrestricted access. Some researchers even advise that instead of labeling foods as “healthy” or “not healthy,” you should refer them as “always” and “sometimes” foods.

Teach your children to know when their bodies are full.

When it comes to their bodies, they are the experts. Help them understand that some bodies can take up to 20 minutes after eating to signal whether they're still hungry or not. Help them connect with their own bodies’ signals so they can better understand when they're hungry and full.

Serve veggies that taste good.

Calorie-counting parents often fall into the trap of serving bland and steamed vegetables, so it’s not surprising when their children balk at the idea of eating them. Don’t be afraid to increase the “kid appeal” by adding some butter, sauce, parmesan or ketchup to the dish. Plus, a little fat helps unlock vegetables’ fat-soluble nutrients.

Keep the focus internal, not external.

Avoid bringing attention to how your child looks, how much he or she weighs or clothing sizes. Being compared to others makes a child feel as though there is an ideal body type. Instead of asking about weight or the number of cookies consumed, focus on what their bodies feel like after exercising, or what they notice about their abilities to concentrate in school when they eat healthy breakfasts.

Show, don't tell.

Guess who’s the model for your child’s eating habits? You. If you want a child who eats well and takes care of his or her body, you have to do the same. Getting a handle on your own food and eating issues is part of the process.

This also applies to exercise and body acceptance. Show your child how to care for oneself by exercising, and how to take pride in oneself by accepting your body. Look for fun ways to exercise as a family, such as walking. Everyone, no matter their body types, is at risk for poor health outcomes if they don’t eat well or exercise.

Stop the fat-talk.

Your child hears you ask your friend if the outfit you are wearing makes you look fat, or stress about how much weight you gained over the summer. She’s influenced by how much you value appearance through putting on make-up, coloring your hair, obsessing over outfits, getting your hair and nails done, wearing painful shoes to be taller or refusing to be in public when you’re not at your best. She notices when you're constantly evaluating others’ appearances, too.

Teach your child how food works.

What foods help to strengthen their bones? Which food group is best to eat after exercising? Are there certain vegetables that help them see better at night? The more they know about how each food group contributes to their bodies, the more likely they'll be to make good decisions.

Don't tie food to emotions.

Food shouldn’t be thought of as good or bad. You don’t “deserve” it when you’ve had a bad day, and it's not a reward for an accomplishment – it's fuel for your body.

Be empathetic, authentic and curious.

Saying things like, “You’re beautiful just the way you are,” or “Everybody’s bodies are different,” can feel fake and superficial. Instead, swap statements like these with questions. Ask your kids why they are thinking about their weights. Listen to what they say, and use their responses to guide the conversation, instead of making assumptions or drawing from your experiences.

Cultivate a healthy food environment.

Keep healthy snacks where your child can get them. Put washed and cut-up fruits and vegetables at eye level in the refrigerator. Visit a farmer’s market with your child and let him or her help choose new kinds of fruits and veggies. Let your child pick recipes for dinner and help prepare the meal. This will help him or her get excited about all types of food, not just dessert.

Most of all, remember this: Your voice will become the one they hear in their heads as they criticize their own appearances and bodies. They learn from you how to equate self-esteem with appearance. So, give them the gift of self-acceptance, even if you were denied it.

Trying to control food choices or criticizing eating habits will only lead power struggles that you’ll never win. Plus, soon enough they'll be able to walk to any corner deli or 7-Eleven and buy whatever they want to eat anyway. As a parent, the best thing you can do is focus on motivating your child to make healthy food and exercise decisions on his or her own.

Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of seedlingsgroup.