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Putting Your Child On a Diet: A Recipe For Weight Gain?

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

With all of the recent social and media focus on childhood obesity, many parents have gotten the message that they should be monitoring their child’s weight closely, and many intervention programs focus on giving parents feedback about whether their child’s weight would qualify as “overweight” or “obese.”  It’s long been thought that if parents are aware of their child’s weight status, they can be more effective in helping their child control their weight. That makes a lot of intuitive sense. However, there’s now a wealth of scientific evidence that shows just the opposite– that parents’ perception that their child is overweight (regardless of whether or not that is true) is associated with an increased risk of weight gain in comparison to children of the same body weight whose parents don’t think of them as overweight.²⁴

Why might that be? What could account for these counterintuitive findings? A new study by Eric Robinson & Angelina Sutin²⁵ in the journal Psychological Science explains why. They looked at two groups of children that were studied over long periods of time to understand how children’s actual weight and their parents’ perceptions of the healthfulness of their child’s weight, predicted changes in the child’s weight as they grew up. One group was comprised of over 2,000 children in Australia, who were studied at age 4 or 5 and followed through early adolescence. The other group was made up of more than 5,000 children in Ireland, who were followed from ages 9 to 13.

In both cases, children who were labeled by their parents as “overweight” as a child gained more weight than children whose parents thought their weight was “normal”, even accounting for differences in the children’s actual starting weight. That is, children whose parents labeled their weight negatively gained more weight than children who had an identical weight as a child but whose parents thought their weight was normal. Moreover, the study showed that the weight gain was, at least in part, caused by the fact that children developed their own negative attitudes about their weight, and then engaged in more attempts to diet. As we’ve covered elsewhere, dieting is often counterintuitively a cause of weight gain.

An important takeaway message for this study is that parents should be careful about how they talk about their child’s weight. Words like “overweight”, “obese”, or “fat” may create negative feelings about weight that contribute to longer-term difficulties. Instead, parents can focus on improving the health of their child and family, regardless of weight.

[24]Gerards et al., 2014; Robinson & Sutin, 2016
[25]Robinson & Sutin, 2017

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