My parents never said anything to me about my weight. Not a peep. Even after I returned home from my freshman year of college 15 pounds heavier. Turns out, I was lucky. I have more than a few friends who heard critical comments about their weight growing up—and they all remember those comments vividly, the sting of the words still fresh after so many years.
According to a recent study, those comments made during childhood are more than hurtful. They can have lasting consequences. In new research from Cornell University's Food & Brand Lab, women who remembered their parents commenting on their weight when they were girls (including remarks that they were eating too much) were more likely to be overweight as adults and to report that they needed to lose more weight to be happy. Even women with normal BMIs were more likely to be dissatisfied with their weight if they recalled mom and dad making weight-related comments to them when they were a child.
The survey of about 500 women also revealed that those who remember their parents being concerned with their own weight were more likely to be concerned themselves about calories and weight.
These findings echo lessons from previous research: Parents play a powerful role in a child's view of weight, dieting, and body image. Lots of chatter about weight and dieting at home rubs off on kids and can shape how they feel about food (and themselves)—not just during childhood, but into adulthood as well.
Yet with one third of all kids either overweight or obese, weight is an understandable concern for parents. So if you're worried about your child's weight, what should you do?
Shift Family Habits Experts agree that healthy lifestyle changes are key, but that those changes should be made for the whole family, not just the child. For instance, cook more meals at home instead of going out to eat and do active things together like playing together outside instead of watching TV in the evening.
Be a Role Model Choose healthy snacks, exercise regularly, and drink water instead of soda. When your child sees you choosing these behaviors they're more likely to view them as the norm.
Watch Your Mouth In addition to avoiding talk about your child's weight and food intake, don't make critical comments about your own body. While you're at it, don't label foods as "good" or "bad"—or yourself as "good" or "bad" for eating a certain way.
Don't Rush to Judgment Some children gain pounds before hitting a growth spurt, when their weight will catch up with their height. So don't jump the gun with worrying about weight. You can also consult your child's pediatrician (privately), who will have a long-term understanding of your child's growth.
Did you hear comments about your weight when you were a child—and if so, how did those comments impact you?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.