Don’t focus on dieting, eat at the dinner table together, and encourage exercise for fitness, not weight loss. In a new set of guidelines, American doctors out of Stanford University list approaches that parents can use to address obesity and eating disorders in their teenage kids.
The doctors behind the new set of approaches say they’ve seen it all: teens who have “quick, substantial weight loss” that’s so extreme, they trigger medical consequences such as an unstable heart rate, to others losing control and gaining excess weight.
Sometimes, the eating disorder is hard to detect because teens may not be too thin or too large, for example.
“This is a dangerous category of patient because they’re often missed by physicians. At some point, these patients may have had a real need to lose weight but things got out of control,” Dr. Neville Golden, a pediatrics professor at the university’s School of Medicine, said. He’s the lead author of the new guidelines published Sunday night in the journal Pediatrics.
Golden said that up to 40 per cent of kids admitted to eating disorder treatment programs fit the “easy-to-miss” category.
He and his team carved out five evidence-based strategies that doctors and patients should use to help teens avoid obesity and eating disorders.
Don’t talk to kids about dieting
Your teen could be skipping breakfast or lunch, barely eating, or avoiding entire food groups out of fear of weight gain.
They could be bingeing and purging or overeating after starving all day.
“Scientific evidence increasingly shows that for teenagers, dieting is bad news,” Golden said. If your teen in ninth grade is dieting, he or she is three times more likely than their peers to be overweight by Grade 12.
Calorie-counting diets could leave teens without enough fuel for the day and could lead to anorexia nervosa.
“It’s not unusual to for us to see young people who have rapidly lost a lot of weight but are not healthy – they end up in the hospital attached to a heart monitor with unstable vital signs,” Golden said.
Don’t comment on your own weight or your child’s weight
You need to lead by example, the guidelines say. If you’re unhappy with how you look, your child sees your negative body image.
“Mothers who talk about their own bodies and weights can inadvertently encourage their kids to have body dissatisfaction, which we see in half of teen girls and a quarter of boys,” Golden said.
Body image trouble could lead to relying on vomiting, laxatives and diuretics to control weight.
Try to draw a line between talking about weight and what the scale reads and how healthy you feel or how physically fit you are.
Golden’s third tip is to avoid teasing kids about their weight – whether they’re big, small or average.
WATCH ABOVE: Most children grow out of picky eating but if it persists it may be Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake disorder. Marianne Dimain explains.
Families should eat regular meals together at the dinner table
This isn’t the first time researchers encouraged eating together as a family. Golden said it isn’t clear what the mechanisms are, but it could be because teenagers get to see their parents modelling healthy eating.
“It doesn’t have to be every night,” Golden said.
Other scientists have pointed to benefits like dinnertime conversation helping to boost vocabulary for young kids – even more than being read aloud to. You’re also feeding your kids a home-cooked meal, teaching them what a healthy plate should look like.
Teach kids about exercise for better health, not weight loss
There’s a difference between working out to lose weight and reaping the benefits for your heart and mental health.
If you’re encouraging your kids to take up exercise, don’t make the incentive weight loss. Make exercise a fun, stress-relieving activity so your kids create a positive relationship with working out instead of treating it like a chore.
Read Golden’s full guidelines here.