How to Talk to Kids About Body Image and Healthy Eating Habits

It is impossible to walk through a grocery store these days and not feel conflicted by the images plastered over magazine covers. Headlines like “Lose Your Belly Fat in Just 10 Days!” or “Best and Worst Beach Bodies” are stacked right alongside cooking magazines with recipes for Decadent Chocolate Cake and Triple Cheeseburgers.

Not all cooking magazines, of course, are full of recipes for such calorie-dense foods and not all cheeseburgers (or chocolate cakes) are bad for you. But the contrast between these two “realities” is striking. And finding balance – between what we’re told we should look like and what we we’re told we should want to eat – is difficult. Even for adults. Imagine how it must feel to teens.

Body image and the brain

While they may experience very grown-up emotions, teen brains are still very immature. In particular their pre-frontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls planning, working memory, impulse control, organization, and helps to modulate mood, goes through a considerable growth-spurt around the time of puberty. Other regions of the brain, and the connections between them, are also developing during adolescence and they require pruning and strengthening before they begin to fully resemble those of adults.

It’s because these “higher order” regions of the brain are still learning to work together that the images plastered across the grocery check-outs are potentially so dangerous: teens are still developing the skills they need to make positive decisions. They are also still developing their identity, healthy self-image, and self-esteem, which are critical for being able to view headlines and images through a more critical lens.

The apparent obsession with the thin-ideal and the idea of a “perfect” body, which is promoted by many mainstream media outlets and widely available in those grocery-store aisles, can lead to dangerous behaviors in young people, especially with respect to food. It is estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. More concerning, over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.

To speak or not to speak?

Given the high rates of weight-related disorders in adolescents, parent may wonder whether talking to their children about eating habits is beneficial or detrimental. And if we do start the conversation, what should we say? Evidence shows that our words do have a powerful impact on young people’s weight and food related behaviors.

For example, parental encouragement of adolescent dieting as a means of controlling or losing weight has been associated with increased risk for depression, excessive worrying about weight, lower self-esteem, binge eating, and higher body mass indexes (BMIs). On the other hand, parental (particularly maternal) modeling of eating and weight-related attitudes can serve as a positive influence on adolescent’s own beliefs if these messages are given in positive and supportive ways. So what’s a parent to do?

Parents matter

As with starting conversations about love and relationships, recent research has shown that parents can have enormous positive influence on their teens’ eating and weight behaviors. Here are some concrete evidence-based actions you can take now!

  • Focus on the positive. Conversations focused on healthful eating had protective effects against disordered eating behaviors in a racially diverse group of adolescents. This pattern was observed among non-overweight and overweight teens alike, regardless of which parent (mother or father) was having the conversation. What’s more, teens who had only one parent engage in healthy eating conversations had a lower occurrence of unhealthy weight-control behaviors compared to teens who had parents who engaged in weight-related conversations or no conversation at all.
  • Eat Together. For girls, but not boys, eating a family meal at least 5 times/week was protective against extreme weight control behaviors 5 years later. These positive effects remained even after taking into account numerous other factors that might influence the relationship between family meals and disordered eating.
  • Be Honest and Clear. The National Eating Disorders Association’s free online Parent Toolkit recommends keeping the conversation brief and matter-of-fact, particularly for younger children. Discussion should not be kept from any child, especially if they are asking questions or are directly affected by a loved one with disordered eating, but answers should be direct and concise.
  • Listen. Give your teen space to share his/her thoughts and observations and let them ask questions and do your best to remain non-judgmental throughout this process. Remember that this is meant to be a conversation, not a lecture.