I grew up in a house of fat-free cookies, Weight Watchers meetings, and Denise Austin’s eight-minute abs. There was a lot of pasta and ice cream, but also an emphasis on leanness. In the decades since, I’ve been keeping score, intermittent fasting, and doing fitness challenges to make my body look smaller.
So it’s no surprise that I was concerned when I spotted a doctor’s note in my electronic health portal that described me as “overweight but alert.”
Although I knew that body mass index, better known as BMI, was a questionable barometer of health, I was alarmed that mine had exceeded the so-called healthy range. Amid studies citing obesity as a risk factor for severe Covid-19 and endless suggestions on how to lose those “pandemic pounds,” I felt determined to fix myself fast.
I chose a sensible nutrition plan, marketed as a “lifestyle change”, not a diet. Still, I worried about how it might affect my children (ages 7, 12, and 15) to see me watch my food intake, following rules such as “water first, vegetables the most” and skip the carbs at dinner.
The pandemic has caused a dramatic global spike in mental health problems and eating disorders among adolescents, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After reviewing 11 global peer-reviewed studies, the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute identified an 83% increase in pediatric hospitalizations for eating disorders during the pandemic.
I couldn’t stop the dangerous messages of diet culture from reaching my family, but I didn’t want to cause further harm with my own behavior. I found a book I wish I had read as a teenager, “No Weigh: A Teen’s Guide to Positive Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom,” co-authored by three teen experts: Dr. Shelley Aggarwal, Physician adolescent medicine specialist, eating disorder therapist Signe Darpinian and dietician Wendy Sterling. Although aimed at teenagers, the book touched me both individually and as a parent.
In March, this trio collaborated on a down-to-earth guide for parents. “Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image” has changed the narrative in my head and in my family, as I help my teen, tween, and 7-year-old cultivate a balanced relationship with food and the body.
Here’s what I learned from the authors about the science of raising truly healthy children.
Yes, say these experts. It is well established that “how a parent eats, how they buy, how they prepare, how they prepare and how they offer food influences the child’s experience of food and the body” , Aggarwal said.
While I’m quick to blame my mother for modeling dieting behavior during my childhood, I recognize that she likely internalized the norms of the dieting culture of her day.
Aggarwal urged parents to reflect on their own complicated experiences with body image and try to develop a personal practice of wellness. “You can only give what you have,” she told me kindly.
In our culture, and particularly in medicine, “weight has been overvalued as a marker of health,” Aggarwal said. Chief among the misguided messages of diet culture that parents inadvertently pass on to children is the use of the word “health” as the “code for thin.”
“Skinny doesn’t mean healthy,” Aggarwal said, so we need to stop using weight to indicate whether someone is healthy, attractive, or worthy. Parents need to make children understand that no one’s worth is based on their appearance, weight, or how or what they eat.
It’s critical that parents understand the “biological, psychosocial and cognitive needs of their developing youngster,” Aggarwal said. Gaining weight and changing shape are normal and expected parts of puberty. Fat helps the body function, she noted, even in the brain, 60% of which is adipose (fat) tissue.
The pressure parents feel to raise “healthy” children of a particular weight can lead them to adopt rigid approaches to meals and snacks, including rules such as saying “no dessert until you have finished dinner,” obsessing over nutritional information and categorizing foods as “good.” “or bad.”
These restrictions often backfire, according to Sterling. Restrictive eating disrupts a child’s innate ability to listen to their internal signals of hunger and fullness and has been shown to be a risk factor for eating disorders and disordered eating.
In addition, parental encouragement to diet in children was a significant predictor of higher risk of being overweight or obese, dieting, binge eating, engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors, and lower body satisfaction, according to a 2018 study.
Experts recommend checking whether a teen’s or your relationship with food or exercise seems out of balance. According to Darpinian, parents often said they overlooked signs of eating disorders because they thought their teen was “just trying to eat healthier and exercise more.”
“Food is so much more than protein, starch, vitamins and minerals, but many people struggle to have fun with food,” Aggarwal said. She encouraged families to remember that food is at the “heart of the human experience” and an important source of connection through cultural traditions, holidays and special events.
To promote a body-positive home, stop talking about diet, weight and fitness, and don’t judge other people’s bodies, Sterling said. Learn more about intuitive eating, which dietitians have been recommending for decades. For children whose diets seem out of balance, Sterling suggested teaching them to use a “hunger meter” to determine their level of hunger before making food choices.
Families need to look beyond appearances to a broader view of the essentials that enable us to experience wellness, such as mental health, sleep, food, and movement in fulfilling and joyful ways.
Comments such as “I’ll have to run tomorrow to get rid of this dessert” establish a troubling link between exercise and food intake. Instead, the authors said in their sleep chapter that parents can “focus on the many practical benefits of exercise, including improved mood, energy and sleep, stress relief and metabolic fitness”.
Parents can guide teens toward choices that have been scientifically proven to be essential for well-being. For example, the authors pointed to studies that show how getting enough, consistent sleep improves athletic and academic performance.
Likewise, the use of technology must be intentional and regulated. Parents need to proactively monitor — and teach children to be aware — of time spent online and the impact of social media on their sleep and self-esteem.
If “body positivity” seems out of reach for parents and teens unhappy with their bodies, Darpinian recommended using micro-goals proven to help us achieve our goals more effectively. To improve body image, practice reducing body-controlling behaviors such as obsessively looking in the mirror or looking at pictures or comparing yourself to others.
Instead of focusing exclusively on trying to achieve an ideal weight or height, experts suggest encouraging wellness behaviors that promote holistic intuitive self-care.
“We know that if you improve your lifestyle and are able to get to bed on time, manage stress effectively, eat intuitively, and get used to moving in a way that are happy for you, the result will be your body’s natural body weight,” Darpinian said. A therapist can help if there is grief or disappointment in accepting where one’s body naturally ends.
The authors have included wisdom from Virginia Sole-Smith, Dismantling Food Culture, for example how to respond when your teen asks, “Am I fat?” or talking about diet and how to discuss fat phobia.
The book also provides useful scripts for difficult boundary setting situations. I could never identify what bothered me about comments (even positive ones) about my appearance until the authors provided the perfect answer: “When you comment on my body without my consent, I feel angry and j hear in my head that you are scrutinizing my body. body.”
Stopping dieting doesn’t mean I’ve given up on my family’s health. Instead, I hone a holistic, non-dietary approach to our nutrition, fitness, and wellness.