Concerned about your child’s weight? Here’s some food for thought

A new study says commenting on a girl’s weight can have “long-term repercussions.” We asked a psychologist how parents can discuss the topic without harming their child's self-esteem. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for City Harvest

Commenting on your daughter’s weight may be doing more harm than good, new research suggests.

More than 500 women aged 20 to 35 were surveyed for the Cornell University study titled: “‘Don’t Eat So Much:’ How Parent Comments Relate to Female Weight Satisfaction.”

The results showed the more a woman remembered her parents talking about her weight as a child, the more dissatisfied she was with it as an adult.

This applied to women who were within the “normal” BMI range, as well.

“Specifically, with two normal weight adult women,” the findings read, “if one had recalled her parents making comments about her weight, she was 8.2-lbs more dissatisfied with her weight than a similar woman who did not recall her parents making comments about her weight.”

Telling a child she’s eating too much was linked to her being overweight later in life, though researchers admit they can’t prove causality on that.

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Commenting on a child’s body size can also lead to eating disorders and self-esteem problems, according to registered psychologist Lisa Ferrari, co-director of the Vancouver Psychology Centre.

WATCH: Dr. Lisa Ferrari talks about children’s body image issues

Click to play video: 'Body image issues in children'
Body image issues in children

So what are parents supposed to do?

Ferrari said it helps to consult with a pediatrician, your family physician or a nutritionist. Children might find professional feedback less judgmental and may receive it more positively, she explained.

For those worried about their child’s weight and eager to tackle the sensitive topic on their own, tread gently.

Here are six tips from Ferrari that can help ease the discussion:

  1. Don’t shy away from talking about physical health

“As a parent if you aren’t talking to your daughter about the weight concern you may be unintentionally sending the message to them that you are uncomfortable with it, or ashamed, don’t know how to help them and/or you’re feeling discouraged,” Ferrari warned.

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If your child is overweight, chances are they’ve already noticed and have compared themselves to their peers who may have teased them for their weight problem.

  1. Don’t use labels

“It’s important to have judgment-free conversations which feature no labels — like chubby, big-boned, heavy, or fat.”

Try to avoid “appearance-focused” exchanges altogether.

Instead of saying, “That dress looks so pretty on you” consider asking: “How do you like the dress you chose for your school dance. It looks soft and comfy” or “What do you think of the dress you chose now that you have it on?”

  1. Don’t criticize anyone else’s weight (including your own)

“No talk of calories or losing 10 pounds before the family vacation, dissatisfaction with your own size or what your scale says,” Ferrari urged.

“Refrain from commenting on the shape or size of others (those you know and those in the public eye).”

  1. Don’t single out the overweight child

Rather than have a separate shelf for them with healthy foods, Ferrari encourages parents to make healthy choices for all family members.

“We’ve seen families have locked rooms to keep their kids away from high-calorie sweets and ice cream. This approach never works and leads to kids who have a confused relationship with food.”

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  1. Do model healthy eating habits without judgmental commentary

Treats can be available in moderation.

“We don’t want our girls to feel guilty, weak or bad when it comes to their eating or their weight — especially when they have a moderate amount of calorie- or fat-rich food in the midst of a balanced nutrient-rich diet,” Ferrari said.

WATCH: Simple and nutritious foods for your kid’s lunch box

So rather than saying, “I really shouldn’t eat all these apple slices with peanut butter because it has a lot of fat,” you can say: “I have eaten in a healthy way that I’m proud of so I’m choosing to have a small piece of cake tonight and really super enjoy every single melt-in-my-mouth piece of it.”

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  1. Don’t portion control

You can gently set limits if needed. For example, after a regular meal with a second helping you can say to your child: “If in 20 minutes your body is asking to be fed more, you can have a snack.”

You would then provide two healthy options.

WATCH: 4 easy and healthy snacks to make with your kids

Click to play video: 'Four easy and healthy snacks to make with your kids'
Four easy and healthy snacks to make with your kids

Helping your child learn about self-regulation is important, she stressed.

“Providing an abundance of nutritional food is OK, but portion control is intrusive and controlling.”

“It’s confusing when kids are told that you know more about what their bodies need than they do. Teaching them about what their bodies need is best.”

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Ferrari said a good way to do this is by talking about “mindful eating.” That includes helping your child differentiate about what it feels like to eat “too much” versus a “just right” amount.

READ MORE: 7 tips for practicing mindful eating

She suggested making it an “experiment,” where everyone in the family “reports their observations and then compares notes.”

“An open and curious atmosphere about these topics keeps the discussions flowing and gives kids an opportunity to be heard and understood.”

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