Diets for Kids?


I invited Dr. Kendrin Sonneville, co-director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, to write a blog about the mother who put her 7 year old daughter on a strict weight loss diet because it's an issue that resonates deeply with many in the Savor community. Many of you have told me about your struggles with weight, body dissatisfaction and the diet trap. On this website, we talk about using mindfulness to overcome these struggles and have a calmer, more peaceful relationship with food, weight, ourselves and our world. Our own feelings about dieting, body satisfaction, and weight can influence our families, and most especially, our children. We need to be mindful of how our words and actions affect them. It’s extremely helpful to use loving speech whenever we talk to our children.  And, we can mindfully ensure that our home supports our family to practice a healthy lifestyles with ease.


Diets For Kids?
Kendrin Sonneville, ScD, RD

A recent Vogue article about a woman who put her 7-year–old daughter on a strict diet has ignited outrage from parents and health professionals alike. It has also sparked the debate: In light of our current obesity epidemic, what role should parents play in their child's weight control? Are parents obligated to use whatever means necessary to prevent their child from obesity and all of its associated health risks? Looking at the research on obesity, it often seems that we have more questions than answers. But we do know that restrictive dieting is not the solution.  Dieting is a potent predictor of eating disorders and obesity, in part because most diets are difficult to sustain. Furthermore, parental attempts to control food intake often backfire.  Research shows that children whose parents strictly control their food intake will eat more "forbidden foods" whenever they have the chance (particularly when the mother is not present, not surprisingly). In contrast, research suggests that taking a mindful eating approach shows promise for weight management and eating disorders in adults.

Girls are bombarded by countless messages from the media and their peers related to how they should look.  Although it may not be possible for parents to offset all of these societal pressures, they certainly should not reinforce them or send the message that the child's worth is in any way tied to his or her weight or appearance. A study of adolescents conducted by researchers at Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical school showed that girls whose parents teased them about their weight were actually much more likely to start binge eating and become obese than girls whose parents did not tease them. Parents should promote body satisfaction for their children and avoid sending the message that our bodies are something we should be ashamed of. Keep in mind that body satisfaction is something that should be promoted for kids of all sizes, not just kids who are at a healthy body weight. Research shows that overweight and obese kids who are satisfied with their bodies actually gain less weight than those who are dissatisfied.

Weight is a difficult and complicated subject to talk about, even for parents who talk about it mindfully, but why must parents talk about weight control with their children at all? Parents make many decisions about their children's health that their children know nothing about.  For example, parents don’t consult their children about which health insurance carrier to choose, nor do they bring kids into conversations about whether or not they should go to the pediatrician for a checkup.  Why then would children need full disclosure when it comes to weight control?  There is a big difference between telling a child, "You are not allowed to eat ice cream every day," and simply not keeping ice cream in the house and going out for ice cream as family on occasion.  Similarly, what approach is more likely to encourage a child to be active: Demanding that the child do a certain amount of physical activity each week to lose weight or, instead, signing the child up for activities that he or she enjoys and planning fun, active family outings?

My suggestion for parents: Instead of taking an active and overt role in your child’s weight control, consciously invest time and energy into creating a healthy, but not overly restrictive, food environment and modeling balanced eating and body satisfaction.  This positive, supportive approach will lay the foundation for healthy weight—and healthy body image—for life.

Dr. Sonneville is a registered dietitian and the co-director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard School of Public Health.