Let's drop the dieting resolutions this year — our kids are listening
- Pandemic data shows weight gain among parents and kids and a spike in eating disorders among teens.
- Include children in movement activities, such as dancing or cleaning, instead of limiting food.
The data is heavy, and the headlines are unrelenting: During the pandemic, 51% of American parents reported undesired weight gain, obesity spiked among kids ages 5 to 11, and hospitalizations for eating disorders among adolescents increased significantly.
I didn't connect my active, kale-loving family of five to these statistics until I noticed a note in my medical record. Under patient examination, the clinician typed, "Overweight, but alert."
Alert — and insulted — I immediately began researching diets, such as macronutrient tracking and intermittent fasting, but I worried about following a restrictive eating plan in plain sight of my kids.
Researchers found that dieting discussions and fat talk were harmful to kids and often led to disordered eating. Rachel Millner, a psychologist and certified eating-disorder specialist, said that when parents comment negatively about their bodies, "kids are listening and hearing their own bodies criticized."
While parents don't cause eating disorders, the home environment can be a risk factor, especially when there's a family history of overevaluation of appearance. Studies also showed that weight stigma was more likely to drive weight gain and poor
Zoë Bisbing, a New York City psychotherapist and the author of "The ABCs of Body-Positivity Parenting," wasn't surprised by the pandemic weight-gain data, given many months of increased eating and stress coupled with reduced activity. She urged acceptance of weight gain as "part of your survival story, not necessarily a crisis that needs correcting."
How parents can best tend to their family's health
Bisbing suggested that parents and other caregivers treat pandemic pounds as an invitation to learn about the body-positivity, anti-dieting, and Health at Every Size movements. She encouraged parents to notice their own weight biases and how often they comment, positively or negatively, about size, appearance, or food choices. "Then, just stop talking about food and bodies," Bisbing said.
Even if a parent is trying to lose weight, they can protect children from harmful dieting messaging by modeling balance and moderation by "creating some optics that they know how to eat a cookie."
Wendy Sterling, a registered dietitian and coauthor of "No Weigh! A Teen's Guide to Positive Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom," said adults shouldn't display panic about weight gain. "Just exhibit a calm, cool, collected, playful attitude while maintaining or tweaking basic healthful habits," Sterling said.
Parents can ask themselves whether their family moves regularly and eats consistent, balanced meals. If not, they can ensure a variety of foods are equally available and make it as easy to grab a turkey sandwich as a candy bar.
Sterling steers parents away from using sweets as bribes or rewards and endorses an "all foods fit" mindset, rather than categorizing foods as good or bad, healthy or junky. Parents can also teach children — and themselves — to recognize their own internal hunger meter to encourage more intuitive eating.
Brittany Morris, a psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders, guides parents to build realistic
Exercise shouldn't be linked to food intake. "I'm running today to work off yesterday's dessert" sends a message that food needs to be offset. Morris reminds parents to demonstrate to kids that size has no indication of a person's worth or value. She urged being "super self-aware about your relationship with your body and food, so you can provide the safest and least judgmental environment for your kids."
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