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The Right & Wrong Ways to Talk to Kids About Weight

Last year, Dara-Lynn Weiss got slapped with the label "worst mom ever" after she wrote an essay for Vogue magazine about putting her 7-year-old daughter Bea on a strict Weight Watchers-style diet. To some, Weiss's anecdotes—about denying food when Bea complained of hunger, or dumping Bea's hot chocolate into the garbage when Weiss couldn't determine its calorie count—sounded like a step-by-step guide for producing an eating disorder.

And according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, that may be true. The researchers surveyed more than 2,300 adolescents and 3,500 parents, and found that conversations emphasizing a child's need to lose (or avoid putting on) extra pounds were linked to a higher risk of problem dieting and disordered eating. The connection held whether the child was overweight or not—even healthy weight teens were more likely to develop unhealthy habits if mom or dad focused on their weight and appearance.

Don't wait until your child is reaching for a third helping of lasagna at dinner to talk about healthy choices and portion sizes.

While the survey results are eye opening, says lead author Jessica Berge, of the University of Minnesota Medical School, they may also be a source of anxiety for parents who are already unsure of how to broach the subject of weight with their kids. In 2011, a study by Sanford Health and WebMD found that parents were more uncomfortable talking about weight than about sex, drugs or alcohol. But with obesity affecting nearly 20 percent of U.S. children and adolescents, clearly healthy eating is an issue that parents need to address. So how best to do it?

Don't talk about size or the number on the scale. Parents should consider "fat" a four-letter word, says Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City. "Parents need to emphasize that everybody comes in all shapes and sizes. Not every girl is going to be stick-thin, and not every boy is going to have bodybuilder muscles. Instead, the most important thing is to take care of your body so that you can feel good."

Even if your child reveals that she's being teased about being fat, parents should still avoid using the label themselves. "Instead, ask your child: How does that make you feel when they say that? Do you feel fat?" says Dr. Pam Brodie, clinical supervisor at The Renfrew Center, a treatment facility for eating disorders. "If he or she does want to make a change, then you can say 'I'm glad you want to get healthy. Let's talk about how we can help you with that.'"

Be careful what you say to thin kids, too. "Even if your children are not heavy, it's best to be mindful of comments about their looks," says Berge. "Whether it's saying 'Better be careful, you don't want to get fat' or even giving your child a so-called compliment about how 'skinny' she is, our study found that these types of conversations are still linked to an unhealthy fixation on weight."

Choose your moments wisely. Don't wait until your child is reaching for a third helping of lasagna at dinner to talk about healthy choices and portion sizes, says Berge. "In-the-moment comments like, 'Are you sure you want to eat that?' still have a negative undertone," she says. Instead, weave your "healthy lifestyle" message into the fabric of day-to-day life.

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"You need to look at the big picture of what your children are eating, and help give them the tools they need to make good choices on their own," says Brodie. "This is not about policing every piece of food that goes into their mouths. It's about showing kids what a portion size really looks like, and why it's important to eat a balanced diet, and how to listen to their bodies' cues about hunger and fullness."

Get the whole family involved. "Think about shows like The Biggest Loser, where everyone bands together and makes changes as a team," says Hes. "That's the dynamic you want to create—you never want the child to feel singled out." Whether you want your kid to stop drinking so much soda, or go for daily walks, or eat smaller portions at dinner—everybody needs to be on the same page. "The message needs to be: Let's be a healthier family together," says Hes.

Try to be a good model, even if you're overweight. The biggest way that parents can help their children adopt good eating and exercise habits is by modeling healthy behavior, themselves. For overweight or obese parents, however, this may be difficult. "Parents who are struggling with weight themselves tend to avoid the topic with their kids altogether, because they feel guilty or hypocritical about bringing it up," says parenting psychologist Susan Bartell, creator of 4healthygirls.com.

Still, parents shouldn't ignore the issue or tiptoe around it, according to Brodie. "A kid knows if their parent is overweight—it's not going to be news," she says. "But instead of using judgmental talk like 'I'm fat,' or 'I need to lose weight,' parents can say 'I'm working on getting healthier, and the way that I'm going about it is by making these changes. I want you to be healthy too, so let's do it together.'"

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Be aware of your own body issues. "Even if you're not heavy, when you say, 'I can't eat that,' or 'I'm getting too fat for these jeans,' whether you realize it or not, it's going to translate to your kids," says Brodie. "Parents don't just need to role model good choices when it comes to eating and exercise, they also need to role model good body image and show their kids that they're comfortable in their own skin." Kids are very sensitive to their parents' attitudes, says Hes. "If they see that mom or dad has an unhealthy fixation on their own weight, they know that they're also being judged."

Avoid overly strict food rules—and don't judge if your child slips up. "If your daughter comes home from a slumber party and says she had pizza and ice-cream for dinner, your next question should be, 'Oh, did you have fun?' not, 'Why did you eat that? Now you can't have this or that because you splurged,'" says Brodie. "Making certain foods like sweets or chips off limits can actually backfire, for two reasons. First, those foods become an even greater temptation—it's like 'forbidden fruit' to the child. And second, you want your child to learn how to incorporate all kinds of foods into a healthy diet using moderation."

Bartell agrees: "You can't expect your child to eat perfectly all the time, and for some kids who are struggling with their weight, it may take years to acknowledge that they need to make healthier choices and figure out the issue for themselves. And in the meantime, you don't want your relationship with your son or daughter to be based on what or how they eat."

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Use healthy motivation. Let's face it: Sometimes kids—especially tweens and teens—just don't want to listen to their parents. If you feel your "healthy living" message is falling on deaf ears, says Bartell, stress to your kids that "this isn't about earning your approval as a parent. It's about learning to take care of themselves and make choices that are going to benefit their own bodies." Or, tailor the discussion to your child's interests, suggests Berge. "My daughter likes to play softball, so if I were talking to her, I could say, 'By exercising and eating well, you'll be able to run faster or be a better player.'"

And for older kids who want to eat healthy without involving mom or dad, apps—like My Fitness Pal or Lose It!—can be good motivators, says Hes. "They allow kids to track everything themselves, which puts the control and the decision-making power in their hands."

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