By Debra Benfield,  M.Ed., R.D., LDN, Medical Nutrition Therapist

Does anything freeze you in your tracks faster than someone commenting on your child’s body size? Is there anything that creates more embarrassment, shame, confusion, anxiety, or maybe anger, than “Has Johnny gained some weight?”?! The issue of our children’s weight is a point of major confusion, worry, and angst for almost every parent. The mom who is comfortable and confidant about this issue is as rare as, well, the mom who is comfortable and confidant about her own body. And therein lies the rub. We don’t want our kids to have to deal with the struggle that comes with being overweight. We want to protect our kids from the very real prejudice that exists in our culture against kids who are not thin. But how do you address this sensitive and emotionally loaded topic?

One of the reasons this topic is so challenging is more of our kids are overweight. I will not go on and on about why that is. At the same time, our drive for thinness and intolerance of overweight is also at an all-time high. So what’s a mom to do?

A national debate is taking place about a parent’s role in their child’s weight control. This seemed to come to a head a couple of weeks ago when Vogue magazine published the story of a mother putting her 7-year-old daughter on a strict diet. The public outcry and backlash was hard to miss. I agree that publishing this story without speaking to the possible downside of putting a child on a diet was irresponsible.

But I feel for the mom in this story and for all the moms that are trying to traverse this tough terrain. There is very little guidance available for parents trying to prevent or manage their child’s weight in a mindful and balanced way. Preventing the pitfalls seems to be the greatest challenge. Our nations foremost expert in this area, Ellyn Satter, said “Labeling your child as overweight and taking steps to remedy it, whether direct or indirect, make her feel flawed and inferior in all ways.” Those words are enough to make you want to avoid the whole thing! But that doesn’t help either. Today and tomorrow, I will be offering my thoughts about feeding your kids when you have concerns about weight. Today, I would like to break down what NOT to do and tomorrow’s post will tackle what TO do.

There is a growing body of evidence that dieting is not the solution. Dieting is associated with weight gain over time, not loss. In a recent study following over 4000 twins with their weight checked at ages 16,17,18 and 25 showed the following: restricting eating (dieting) was associated with accelerated weight gain (independent of genetics) AND the excess weight increased WITH EACH DIETING ATTEMPT. Another study with 17,000 school-aged children found that dieting itself was not only a significant predictor of weight gain, but also the risk of binge eating increased 7-12 fold in these kids.

In my clinical experience with kids and teenagers (and adults remembering their childhoods), this is how it goes: human beings begin to sneak food when they feel policed about their eating and when they begin to live within a world of food rules and deprivation. There is also a sense of shame about their eating AND their bodies. Even people who want to lose weight begin to sneak and feel ashamed of themselves.

Even more concerning is that dieting is the common denominator of all eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder). Please remember, YOU CANNOT TELL BY LOOKING AT SOMEONE THAT THEY HAVE AN EATING DISORDER!

Consider these hard, cold facts: According to Sari Shepphird PhD, eating disorder specialist and author of 100 Questions & Answers About Anorexia Nervosa:

-The risk of death is greater with a low BMI (body mass index-more about this later) than a high one.
-Eating Disorders bring with them the highest death rate of all mental illnesses (up to twenty percent)
-Bulimia increases by 35% every 5 years!
-Teenage boys are the highest growth segment of individuals suffering from anorexia and bulimia.
-The most common eating disorder, EDNOS (eating disorder, not otherwise specified), is often never diagnosed and all forms of eating disorders are under diagnosed and under treated.
-Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness in adolescents (behind obesity and asthma).

Does knowing that (1) dieting doesn’t work (much more likely to create weight gain than loss), and (2) dieting increases the risk of your child developing an eating disorder –  leave you with a feeling of frustration and hopelessness? Please don’t let it! Now you know what NOT to do but there are definitely things you CAN do! Tomorrow’s blog will be all about exciting new research that gives you real tools for feeding your children with positivity and joy…promise!