Commenting on your child's weight could have a huge impact on their health

Modern family parentsABCClaire Bowen and Ty Burrell portraying Claire and Phil Dunphy on ‘Modern Family.’

If you’ve ever wondered what to say to a child whose eating habits could use a bit of improvement, consider this:

Commenting on a child’s weight probably isn’t going to help. If anything, some recent research highlighted on Thursday by the New York Times suggests it tends to make things worse.

For their study, researchers asked 501 young women between the ages of 20 and 35 questions about their body image. They also asked them to remember how frequently their parents made comments about their weight.

The women who said they remembered their parents’ comments were more likely to say they also felt they needed to lose a significant amount of weight — regardless of how much they actually weighed.

The finding is striking in part because it isn’t so much about how frequently a parent made comments about weight or even about how critical or harsh their comments were. What mattered the most was whether or not the young women remembered that their parents had many such comments at all. An occasional comment, made by a mother at a particularly vulnerable time in a child’s life, for example, appeared to be no less significant than daily disparaging remarks from a father.

“A parent’s comment about their daughter’s food intake and weight, however well-intended, may have longterm repercussions,” the authors of the study write.

Women, food, and body image

As with any study, this one has its limitations. For starters, the researchers only looked at women. This was in part, the researchers write, because other studies suggest that women still play the role of “nutrition gatekeeper” in most American households. (Research also shows that overall, women are exposed to more media-driven messages about thinness and body weight than men.)
The paper also only included women whose families had lived in the US for more than two generations.

But its findings about negative comments from family members seem to square with other studies.

For example, a nine-year-long, 2014 study of thousands of 10-year-old girls published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that close to 60% of the participants had already been told they were “too fat” by age 10. Nine years later, those girls were more likely to be obese than those who had not been labelled “too fat,” regardless of how much they actually weighed at age 10. When the remarks came from family members, they appeared to have stronger effects than when they came from outsiders.

More than just what you say

And while the current study looked at parents’ comments about body weight, research suggests that other factors — from what parents eat to how they talk about food — may play an equally strong role in how young people feel about their bodies.

Findings from a 2012 study, for example, suggested that parents’ own eating and fitness behaviours can strongly influence those of their children. Similarly, a 2003 study found that the children of parents who ate more fruits and vegetables — and had them in the home — tended to also eat more of these foods.

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