Fitness Articles

When Mom & Dad Diet: Talking to Kids About Weight Loss

Better Ways to Promote a Positive Body Image Around Children

It's a philosophy that's repeated time and time again: Healthy habits start at home. And it's true—taking steps towards positive lifestyle changes in the pursuit of weight loss and overall health in the home are among the most rewarding decisions a family can make together. Whether the hope is to keep up with the kids or reap the many health benefits, a 2016 study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that even moderate weight loss has great rewards. But there is one factor to keep in mind: How are your children perceiving your weight loss efforts?
The truth is, even young children are very aware and often self-conscious about their bodies. According to a 2015 report from child advocacy group Common Sense Media, more than half of six- or seven-year-old girls say their "ideal weight" is less than their current number. Boys aren't immune either, with one-third expressing the same goal. The findings show that kind of body negativity continues to heighten through adolescence and into teenage years. Even more concerning? One of the key findings was that five- to eight-year-old girls who believed their mothers weren't happy with their figures were more prone to dissatisfaction with their own bodies.
FitShrink founder Dr. Kelly Baez, a licensed professional counselor and psychologist, says parents who go about dieting in the wrong way can set their children up for their own lifelong battles with food. Consider how often parents cut out whole food groups or regularly comment about chocolate going straight to their thighs. Whether it is said in jest or in earnest, a child might witness such attitudes towards food or exercise and assume it is the norm or subconsciously adapt a similar behavior later in life.
She explains, “The parent might make the mistake of modeling poor eating habits, like proclaiming that certain foods are off limits or eating in a way that appears different.” This, Dr. Baez says, can send children the wrong messages about body image. “Watching a parent fight with food sets the stage for the same relationship pattern for kids and food in the long term.”
Fortunately, Baez says it is possible to facilitate healthy body images for kids while parents shed pounds. "If a parent is going through their own weight loss, they must never, ever talk about getting skinny or that they are too fat. Even if a parent has significant weight to lose, the goal should be to get healthy," Baez says. "One of the biggest mistakes that parents can send is to eat something, usually a treat of some sort, then say they have to go burn it off with more exercise. This is laying the groundwork for disordered eating."
Instead, Baez advises keeping the emphasis on what feels good about exercise and eating well. "Living on shakes and packaged meals doesn't teach kids anything about nurturing their bodies with healthy choices," she says. "Talk about the way food benefits your body. Avoid talking about any off-limits foods." She adds the same is true for exercise. "If you talk about how much you hate running, but you love what it does for your figure, that can send a conflicting message."
Like Mother, Like Child
As the mother of a six-year-old girl, Kristin Sancken says she's well aware that messages glorifying skinniness come from platforms she may not be able to control. Still, she says she makes a point of discussing body image with her daughter. "We talk a lot more about the importance of being strong and healthy, [rather] than being skinny," she says. "For instance, we've been working on the concept that every meal should have a fruit and vegetable, not because it makes us skinnier, but because we will get sick less often."
The importance of promoting that kind of positive relationship with food and exercise is something Sancken took to heart after growing up with a mother who struggled with anorexia. She says, "The main thing I'm making sure to do differently than my mom is to teach my daughter about nutrition and not just calories."
Natasha Miles, the owner of Transformazing Fitness and a mother to three girls, says being mindful of the messages she sends her daughters also benefits her. "If you can be more conscious about the things that you say and give them a better image, that gives you a better image about yourself," she says. She's found that is especially important as she tries to lose weight she gained after being injured. "As little girls, you look up to your mom and that's kind of your role model. And it's like, 'Oh, if my mom thinks she's fat, then I must be fat too because I look just like her.'"
If one of her daughters ever expresses a desire to lose weight along with her, Miles said she would respond by asking for the reasoning—which is right in line with what Baez suggests. Baez says to start by asking what the benefit would be, whether the child feels limited in some way or if they are being bullied. Assessing that can help parents form an appropriate response.
"If they are in a healthy weight range but want to be skinny, then parents should double check the language they are using and the focus should be on health and loving your body," Baez says. "If the child truly has a weight problem, it's okay to talk about simple changes to eating habits, learning to cook healthy meals together and finding a daily exercise routine they can feel good about."
Awareness is key in any lifestyle change, more so when the impressionable mind of a child is around. By changing the vocabulary with which you discuss and approach healthy changes in diet and exercise, it is possible for parents to lose weight while still promoting children's positive self-images. 

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Member Comments

  • This was always hard for me with overweight issues as my kids were growing up. I dealt with fears of preteens or teens having a food disorder of some kind and often felt that a diet for myself might start up negative reactions. I was not an extremist of any kind and was more of a Weight Watchers mentality, but I thought and prayed over this a lot. Thankfully, both kids made it through OK. One, however, has serious weight problems and the other is easily influenced by comments of others and worries about being overweight.
  • We must use time as a tool, not as a crutch.
    - John F. Kennedy
  • Our kids absorb our example like a sponge!!!! Great article.
  • Good information
  • I have found that if you eat poorly your kids and family will eat poorly as well. It takes effort and time for healthy eating that we all must strive to do.
  • Some of my kids favorite TV shows have great messages about food for kids. Daniel Tiger and Super Why both had episodes focusing on eating healthy, trying new foods, and why it's not good to eat too much junk food. Check these out if you have kids, the songs are cute too :)

    I'm big on the "everything in moderation" approach and teach my kids the same. Daily Fruits and Veggies aren't about losing weight but about being healthy and having energy. Plus their yummy :)

    Treats are fine in moderation. My daughter is satisfied with little treats and we adults gotta realize these kids are like 1/4 or even 1/8 of our size and do not need as much as us. Even the kids scoop at ice cream shops is often more than she even wants. So we give the littlest bit and wait for her to ask for more rather than giving a lot up front. She rarely asks for more.

    We don't count calories or make sure we are eating only 1/2 cup of this or that, but we make sure to get a mix of foods in our daily diet for us and our kids.

    Also modeling exercise is always good. Although, my kids barely ever sit still so maybe I should be learning from them instead :)
  • My husband and I frequently share, during family meals, how many calories we calculate a meal to be, so we can track it. Sure enough, our preschool boys picked up on that and incorporated this ritual in their play. From time to time, we can hear them saying to each other "How many calories are in that?" "Six!" "Okay." (Pretending to write it down). Monkey see, monkey do! LOL!

    We see the way kids eat around us (and we live in a middle class environment) and for the most part it is NOT good. There is a kid that eats at the same breakfast table with our kids at daycare. Every morning, she eats a pop tart with a superhero printed on the sugar glaze. Our kids adore super heros! One day, I heard the teacher asking the girl if she ate any other breakfast before coming to daycare. Nope, that's all she got. Sometimes there is another kid at the table and he usually eats one or another type of hot pocket. Another kid used to sit at the table and he usually dropped a few hostess mini muffins on his plate and would tear into a go gurt. So we up the ante: This morning, we sent the kids to school with a breakfast sandwich of home baked sourdough bread with smoked salmon and homemade relish. It doesn't have a super hero on it, but dad drew a smiley face on the bag. I sure hope they enjoyed it.

    We feel a constant struggle to keep palatable high sugar and/or high fat foods out of our kids' mouths. The sensory appeal of such food is undeniable and difficult to resist, for us as well as our kids. We know better, but our kids don't. That is why we strive to model food-related habits that hopefully will instill appreciation for real, good tasting food that is made with clean eating, farm-to-table, and unprocessed concepts in mind. It is a sad situation that this requires us to sacrifice substantially both budget and time wise. And I'm not going to lie, it is frustrating, even infuriating, at times. But we feel a great responsibility for these two little people. Our children deserve a healthy future and we feel responsible, as parents, to give them the...
  • This article is bang on. My mom was constantly on a diet, eating cottage cheese and peas for dinner while everyone else had pasta (or something). Those are some of the most ingrained memories of dinner time with the family. Promoting healthy living is essential if we want kids with a healthy body and mind.
  • Very good article!
    For me, the key messages were "if mom is fat then I must be fat too because I'm like her" and that in front of your child never say you have to burn off by exercise something you just ate.
    Logical, but in everyday business we don't think of this.
    Also, to demonstrate integrity towards our children, we must build that integrity for ourselves first. Win-win!
    "As little girls, you look up to your mom and that's kind of your role model. And it's like, 'Oh, if my mom thinks she's fat, then I must be fat too because I look just like her.'" So true for me. People always used to say I looked just like my mom. She used to tell me I was beautiful, but called herself fat and ugly :-( I worried about it and had disordered eating from the age of about 9 or 10, even though I was a normal weight at that point. Focussing on health and strength is so much more helpful than focussing on looks and weight.
  • In my city, the neighborhoods with the greatest concentration of people underemployed, poorly-employed, and unemployed are the areas where their food choices are often determined by closing of all the small neighborhood groceries for the construction of much fewer SUPER-Stores in "better" neighborhoods. This may be fine for those of us with decent salaries and access to transportation at the hours and to the places we need to go, but way too many of the poor and elderly are left to whatever they can find at convenience stores and dollar stores--mostly snacks, sweets, and overly "processed foods.

    HOWEVER, this was not the focus of the above article itself, which I believe was well-written and insightful enough that I chose to share it with my friends on Facebook.
  • I would agree that eating poorly is an epidemic, but until you have actually lived on food stamps or walked the path of life with someone who is in that situation, please don't be so quick to judge. It's not just being able to buy the food, it's also having the time, equipment, and knowledge to prepare it.

    Also, check your grocer's labels. Not every state is the same, but some not only require only certain foods to be purchased, but in certain quantities or forms. Try one grocery trip where you only buy what is marked as EBT acceptable, within an EBT budget, then prepare everything at home with only 20 minutes/day of food prep time for all 3 meals. Many people on food stamps are working more than one job, or have other mobility issues that make food preparation difficult or impossible. It's easy to see why someone may choose pre-made foods.

    And you are correct, poor eating habits happen in all economic levels. But your comment made it seem as if you are solely blaming poor families.

    I just wish a basic cooking class could be required to graduate from high school!
  • I have found that eating poorly is an epidemic. The biggest that I see is those that are getting food stamps waste it on junk food (chips, pop, cookies, ice cream, pizza, etc.) then they run out and then beg for money to buy more. Its teaching the kids how to eat improperly. Then these kids grow up and teach their young the same thing, I know this also goes on for those that aren't on these programs.

About The Author

Emily Glover Emily Glover
Emily Glover is a freelance journalist based in Colorado. She is passionate about healthy living and body positivity, which she both writes about and tries to practice. Her hobbies include running, hiking with her husband and son, and testing out new recipes in the kitchen. Follow her on Twitter @EmMcGlover.