Are we responsible for our children's body image? Science would indicate that we were, and that means we have a tremendous responsibility to help our children have healthy body images and ideals.

Findings from Cornell University suggest that when parents comment on a girls' weight it can have a negative impact on her well-being later in life. For the study, 501 women between 20 and 35 years old were surveyed about their body image and asked to recall from their childhood how frequently their parent(s) commented about their weight and/or the amount of food that they ate.

Results from the study indicated that the more parents commented on a daughter's weight and the more parents commented about their daughter eating too much the higher the correlation to both a woman's higher adult (BMI) and perceived weight dissatisfaction as an adult.

The Cornell study included both overweight and healthy weight women who recalled their parents commenting on their weight as a child. Both groups were less satisfied with their weight as adults. These findings indicate that weight-related comments were damaging to body image regardless of weight.

Extensive research indicates that body dissatisfaction and concern are predictors for disordered weight control behaviors and eating disorders among both adolescent females and males. If a child is overweight or obese it can lead to a multitude of health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea and/or social discrimination.

And, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, obsessions with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder, such as, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, which have been documented as daily struggles for 10 million females and 1 million males in the United States.

Although parents must be careful about how they speak to their child about their weight or their eating habits, it is important to remember that healthy eating habits start at home. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control found that the percentage of overweight and obese children has tripled since the 1970s. Nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and adolescent children ages 6 to 19 are obese.

There are several factors that can contribute to obesity, some of which a parent cannot prevent. Some genetic disorders and metabolic disorders cause significant weight gain even in young and active children. However, other factors such as eating habits, physical activities, and positive reinforcement of healthy choices can be controlled at home.

Some other factors that contribute to obesity have to do with what happens in our communities. Fast food is more easily accessible than healthy options, especially to adolescents who are hanging out with friends or finishing up an after-school activity. or families. It is also more affordable to low-income families. Our society has somewhat of an obsession with food, and much of that has to do with whatever is fastest and easiest.

In addition to the societal and economic pressures to consume unhealthy foods, many schools contribute to the unhealthy meal options for students. Only recently have schools begun to re-evaluate things served in the cafeteria, and even then they still aren't the best options for students.

Healthy foods are often more expensive, which makes it difficult for many families to make healthier choices. It is also harder for large community services, like schools, to provide those options on a tight budget. But as parents, it is our job to change the way we were raised for the betterment of our children. Throw away the sugary cereal, the Hot Pocket meals, and the Twinkies of our childhood, and start looking towards healthier options for your children.

So what should parents do?

If you have concerns about your child's weight consult your pediatrician to help you determine whether your child has a healthy percentage of body fat given their age and gender.

When it comes to encouraging healthy eating habits, our actions can speak louder than words. Consider these words of advice:
  • Make healthy food choices readily available in your home. Stock your home with vegetables, fruits and whole grain products. Include protein-rich foods like lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils, beans, eggs, tempeh, cheese, yogurt and nuts. Drink lots of water and limit sugar-sweetened beverages. Do not forbid or totally restrict sugary treats, rather model and encourage self-regulation
  • Practice mindful eating. The Center for Young Women's Health describes mindful eating as "eating with awareness and attention to your body's signals." When we are eating mindfully we are allowing ourselves to eat when we are hungry and we know when to stop when we are full, without imposing strict food rules Do not forbid or totally restrict sugary treats, rather encourage healthy self-regulation. Model and teach your children to eat sensible portion sizes and to use their senses and pay attention to the way our food looks, tastes, feels and smells. When we are not eating mindfully we may be eating while doing something else (watching TV or working at our desk) or we may be emotionally eating, turning to food for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward rather than satisfying hunger. Mindful eating is good for your well-being because it helps you to eat in a healthy, balanced way.
  • Encourage and be a model of an active physical lifestyle. Make daily physical activity a habit in your family. Exercise together, encourage active physical play. Limit screen time and make time for physical exercise every day.

Being a role model for our children with our words, choices and actions can make a big impact on how our children view nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Image Credit: Andrey_Kuzmin