In the last 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
Childhood obesity puts kids at risk for cardiovascular disease, prediabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and potential social and psychological problems. Left untreated, these complications can continue into adulthood.
Of course, the CDC recommends healthy lifestyle choices—healthy eating, physical exercise—but they also point out another important way to keep kids healthy: Providing a safe and supportive environment where healthy lifestyle choices can be made.
What kids don't need? Labels and pressure around weight and weight gain. In fact, too much focus on excess weight tends to lead toward more excessive weight gain.
A new data analysis of two studies found that children whose parents considered them to be “overweight” tended to gain more weight over 10 years than children whose parents considered them “normal weight.” The findings, published in Psychological Science, indicate that children whose parents label them as “overweight” had a negative self-perception about their bodies and engaged in more attempts to lose weight—which actually contributed to weight gain over the 10-year period.
The clear message from this study is that dieting is more likely to lead to weight gain, not weight loss, in both children and adults.
Psychology researchers Eric Robinson and Angelina Sutin argue that the stigma of being labeled overweight as a child might actually play a role in future weight gain.
Robinson and Sutin analyzed the data from a longitudinal study of Australian children. For the study, children’s height and weight were measured at age 4 or 5, and parents were asked to describe whether they thought the children were best described as underweight, normal weight, overweight or very overweight. When the children were 12 or 13, they used images to best depict what they perceived their bodies to look like and were asked whether or not they engaged in any dieting behavior. Height and weight measurements were taken again when the children were 14 or 15 years old.
Results indicated that parent perception played a role in weight gain later on. Children whose parents considered them overweight at age 4 or 5 gained more weight by age 14 or 15.
Considering that many experts warn parents to avoid talking about weight in front of the kids, these results come as no surprise.
It’s worth noting that the perception of a child’s weight and future weight gain had nothing to do with the child’s actual weight at the beginning of the study.
“The clear message from this study is that dieting is more likely to lead to weight gain, not weight loss, in both children and adults,” explains Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN behavioral health expert and author of Body Kindness. “Even if you have weight concerns for your kids, bring it back to health,” she said. "Shift your focus to positive habits that benefit everyone in the family, like cooking and eating together and making fitness more fun.”
Robinson and Sutin analyzed the data from a second study of over 5,000 Irish families participating in the Growing Up in Ireland Study, and found a similar pattern of results. While the data doesn’t definitively determine that parent perception about weight causes the weight gain, it does indicate that parental perceptions can have a negative impact on the child’s health.
Considering that many experts warn parents to avoid talking about weight in front of the kids, these results come as no surprise. “Don’t forget to check your own weight bias,” she advised. “If your child hears you saying something negative about a larger bodied child or adult, they might get the message that ‘fat is bad’, and those beliefs don’t motivate positive lifestyle changes.”