Study: Girls Get Dieting Habits from Mom

Health Writer

If you’re a mom then it’s likely you’ve been on a diet or two…..or many. But will your dieting behavior have a significant influence on your little daughter? That may very well be the case according to a new small study that suggests young girls with dieting mothers to be more likely to start dieting early compared to girls whose mothers were not on a diet.

There are a number of a reasons why a mother would decide to go on a diet. Moms sometimes diet to lose weight after giving birth, to look svelte in preparation for a child’s religious ceremony or simply to feel better about her body image. Occasionally, a mom may diet to improve her health.  If you’re a woman with a daughter, it’s important to realize that she is likely observing your behaviors and may base her own early eating habits on yours.

A Common Sense review of research in 2015 found that a perception of body image begins to develop at a very young age and parents’ behaviors, along with media portrayals and peers, heavily influence these perceptions. And a USA Today report found that moms are likely the most important influence when it comes to how daughters feel about their body image.

Need more evidence? A 2005 study titled Influence of mother’s dieting behaviors on their junior high school daughters found that mothers’ dieting behaviors, eating patterns and conversations about diet, had a strong influence on their junior high daughters. A 2008 study called Maternal effects on daughters’ eating pathology and body image also found that maternal influence through modeling was significant.

And these influences can start at a very early age. Observational studies have noted that little girls as young as five start to make comments about their own weight. Such behaviors are especially prevalent when moms make disparaging remarks about their figures. In the long run, constant talk of weight dissatisfaction and dieting has the potential to raise the risk that a preteen daughter will be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

This new observational study, published in Childhood Obesity, collected data from 181 girls and their parents on four separate occasions throughout a six-year period from age seven to thirteen. Propensity score methods were then used to assess the relationship between mothers’ dieting and the likelihood that the girls would start dieting sometime between those ages.

The study found that if a mom was on a diet during those six years, then it was likely that her daughter would already start to diet by age eleven. In fact, girls who had mothers who reported dieting during the six-year period were three times more likely to attempt dieting by age eleven.

What’s concerning here is that little children learn that dieting means not eating. Comments about “avoiding fat,” or “eating less,” can be imprinted by children and influence early preteen and teen behavior. What further complicates matters is the rising epidemic of child and teen obesity. Your child or teen may, in fact, need to lose weight.  This makes defining safe eating practices that allow for weight loss but don’t lead to disordered eating patterns, even more daunting.

Since it’s clear that kids model a parent’s behaviors, the best course of action may be to follow healthy eating and exercise patterns yourself. It’s important to note, too, that excessive parental control can also affect children’s development of self-regulation leading to a higher risk of obesity or eating disorders.Here are eight ways to encourage healthier eating patterns:

  • Have regular home-cooked family meals
  • Serve a variety of healthy foods and snacks
  • Limit processed foods
  • Avoid battles over foods
  • Make water your beverage of choice
  • Involve kids in food shopping, menu planning, preparation and cooking
  • Make healthy eating a family affair
  • Plan family physical activity

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