Parental Behavior Influences Teen Weight Loss
> 6/5/2008 4:38:50 PM

Parents often do not recognize when their child is at an unhealthy weight, but a recent study published in the June issue of Pediatrics indicates that parental knowledge of a child’s weight problem does not always lead to improvements in the child’s health. A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis examined 170 parent-child dyads over the course of five years. Their work shows that even when parents identify their child as overweight, they often do not take effective steps to help their child lose weight and can even promote unhealthy attitudes about eating.

All of the teenaged subjects, who averaged 14 years of age initially, were overweight at the study’s onset, yet when parents were asked to describe their child’s weight, many incorrectly labeled their children as “about right.” Parents of girls were accurate most often, with 54 percent identifying their daughters as overweight, while only 40 percent of parents with sons were able to do the same. Parents’ weight status had no effect on whether or not they correctly described their child’s weight, but the extent of the child’s heaviness did matter. Children with the highest BMIs were most likely to be classified correctly, an indication that parents of children who are only moderately overweight may have more difficulty recognizing their child’s weight as unhealthy.

Many different factors impact eating behavior, and the researchers examined how several aspects of a family’s home environment, their habits, and their attitudes toward diet and exercise affected children’s weight and parents’ ability to perceive their child’s weight accurately. They looked specifically at how often the subjects’ families ate dinner together, how often they watched TV during dinner, the availability of different kinds of food in their homes, including soda, candy, fast food, and fruits and vegetables, the amount of emphasis the parents placed on eating healthy meals and exercising, and whether the parents encouraged dieting as a way to manage weight. Analysis of these factors revealed that parents who had recognized their children as overweight were not more likely to make healthier food available or promote healthy behaviors. Overall, the researchers found only one significant difference between the two groups of parents. Those who had accurately labeled their children were also more likely to stress dieting as a way to lose weight.

To further examine the effect of these parental behaviors, the researchers looked at how  each factor affected the subjects’ health outcomes five years later. While parents’ perceptions of their child’s weight did not have a direct affect on the child’s heaviness over the subsequent five years, children who had been encouraged to diet were most likely to still be overweight at the study’s end, and this effect was greatest among girls. Dieting may have a negative impact on children and teens in many ways, as the researchers illustrated in a past study. With over 2,000 teenaged subjects, they found that teens who dieted adopted unhealthy eating behaviors that actually increased their chances of gaining weight over five years.

In order to help overweight children, parents need to recognize the presence of a problem, but recognition does not mean that any actions they take to help a child lose weight will be beneficial. The researchers conclude that programs designed to make parents aware of their children’s weight should also focus on effective ways to manage weight. Rather than turning to diets, parents can address unhealthy eating habits, help their children make better snack choices, and encourage exercise. Losing weight is easier for children than for adults, and by adopting these changes earl on, parents can improve the chances that an overweight child will not become an overweight adult.

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