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Teens Influenced by Mom's Attitude About Weight

Parents key to healthy eating and exercise among adolescents, expert says

MONDAY, Dec. 5, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Mothers who worry about dieting and staying thin pass those concerns on to their teenagers, researchers report.

Even though genetics and culture play an important role in determining body weight, it appears that mothers can transfer their own cultural values about weight and body shape to their children.

The report appears in the December issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

"Parents need to be aware that their behaviors, and the perception of what's important to them, are transmitted to their children," said study author Alison E. Field, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "It's important that they try to be role models."

In the study, Field and colleagues collected data on 5,331 teenaged girls and 3,881 teenaged boys, along with their mothers.

The research team found that 33 percent of the girls and 8 percent of the boys thought about their weight and wanted to be thinner. Fifty-four percent of the mothers said they thought a lot about wanting to be thinner, although only 22 percent had tried to lose weight the previous year, Field said.

"About four percent of the mothers reported that it was very important that their daughter be thin, and about four percent of the girls felt that way," Field said. "About 50 percent of the mothers reported that it was important that their sons not be fat."

However, only 0.4 percent of girls and 3.7 percent of boys knew their weight was important to their mother.

"Although few adolescents accurately perceived that their weight was important to their mother, adolescent boys and girls who accurately perceived that their weight was important to their mother were more likely to think frequently about wanting to be thinner and to frequently diet than their peers who accurately perceived that their weight was not important to their mother," the researchers wrote.

"This study further supports that parents eating and weight-control behaviors affect how adolescents feel about themselves," said Lona Sandon, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Sandon thinks that parents should be concerned about a child's weight, but how they approach it needs to be delicate. "The focus should not be on weight, but rather on health," she said.

"Teenagers should be encouraged to be physically active and eat a balanced diet. This means finding out what activities your teenager likes to do, and making those opportunities available," Sandon said.

"Also, keeping healthy foods such as fresh fruit or fruit cups, yogurt, string cheese, skim milk, whole grain cereals, popcorn, nuts and seeds around the house will encourage them to reach for these snacks instead of higher calorie and fat choices. Not only is this good for them, but also for you, the parent," Sandon advised.

A second report in the same journal found that teens say personal fulfillment is the main motivation for being physically active.

"The three other motivations were weight, peer and parent motivation," said study author Katie Haverly, a graduate student in the Department of Health Education and Health Behavior at the University of North Carolina. "But these were reported much less then personal fulfillment."

In the study, the researchers asked 202 middle school students about what would motivate them to be physically active. "Personal fulfillment should be considered as a motivator in designing physical activity intervention for this age group," Haverly said.

Another study in the journal found that schools that allowed frequent snacking, eating and drinking foods high in calories and low in nutrients, and using food as incentives and rewards, produced fatter students in middle school.

In this study, University of Minnesota researchers collected data on 3,088 eighth-graders. They found that the students' weight increased 10 percent for every additional negative food practice allowed by the school.

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture can tell you more about healthy eating.

SOURCES: Alison E. Field, Sc.D., assistant professor, medicine, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston; Katie Haverly, M.S., graduate student, Department of Health Education and Health Behavior, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, and assistant professor, clinical nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; December 2005 Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine
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