In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, caregivers of children with obesity were more likely to directly command their kids to limit food intake.
Research generally suggests direct communication works well when parenting. It encourages kids to listen and comply. But when the topic is something as sensitive as food or body image, this strategy may backfire. A 2015 study found loved ones’ comments on a person’s body could actually promote weight gain.
Caregivers Differ in Food Talk
The study looked only at female caregivers—mostly mothers, but also some grandmothers. Participants were low-income, with children ages 4-8 years old. Researchers videotaped 237 caregiver-child duos in a lab setting.
Researchers presented children with various foods, including chocolate cupcakes. Caregivers of obese children were 90% more likely than other adults to use directive language. When telling children to avoid certain foods, they would use phrases such as “Don’t eat that,” or “Only eat one.” Other caregivers were more likely to use indirect comments like “That’s too much. You haven’t had dinner.”
The study was correlative in nature, so did not measure whether direct instructions about food actually increase the risk of obesity. It could be that mothers of obese children are more likely to directly attempt to restrict their children’s food intake.
Childhood Obesity: Many Controversies, Few Answers
The very notion of obesity is controversial, particularly in children. Children’s bodies change as they grow, and diets can be dangerous. Moreover, comments about children’s weight can cause lasting harm.
Studies disagree on whether it is possible to have a larger body and be healthy. A 2016 International Journal of Obesity study found 29% of obese adults were metabolically healthy, meaning they had regular levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Almost a third of adults with a “healthy” weight were metabolically unhealthy. Another 2016 study in JAMA examined a 2003-2013 cohort in Denmark, and it found the overweight participants had lower mortality rates than their obese or “healthy” peers.
Research published in 2017 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that even metabolically healthy obese people have a 50% greater risk of coronary heart disease. Yet critics said the study failed to take participants’ diet and activity levels into account.
This disagreement leaves parents to sort through the data themselves. There are no formal guidelines for discussing food with children, and no research has established which strategy is most effective. Thus, adults may struggle to talk to their children about food in a way that protects their health and self-esteem.
- Afzal, S., Tybjaerg-Hansen, A., Jensen, G., & Nordestgaard, B. G. (2016). Change in body mass index associated with lowest mortality in Denmark, 1976-2013. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.4666
- Mostafavi, B. (2018, January 9). Moms of obese children use different words to restrict eating. Retrieved from https://labblog.uofmhealth.org/rounds/moms-of-obese-children-use-different-words-to-restrict-eating
- Norton, A. (2016, February 11). ‘Obese’ may not always equal unhealthy: Study. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/sc-obese-but-healthy-health-0217-20160211-story.html
- Pesch, M. H., Miller, A. L., Appugliese, D. P., Rosenblum, K. L., & Lumeng, J. C. (2017). Mothers of obese children use more direct imperatives to restrict eating. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2017.10.010
- Rabin, R. C. (2017, October 26). ‘Fat but fit’? The controversy continues. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/well/eat/fat-but-fit-the-controversy-continues.html
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