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New approach can prevent teen obesity, eating disorders

The guidelines focus on families eating meals together, parents not speaking negatively about their own body image or the look of their teens and motivating healthy lifestyles.

By Stephen Feller
New approach can prevent teen obesity, eating disorders
Researchers say eating healthy meals as a family, while fostering healthy lifestyles, can help prevent eating disorders and obesity about adolescents and teenagers. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

STANFORD, Calif., Aug. 22 (UPI) -- Obsessing about weight, especially in a negative manner, makes teens more likely to develop either eating disorders or obesity, but can be avoided with simple acts that encourage healthy eating behaviors, researchers say.

New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest families eat healthy meals together while parents encourage a healthy body image, which does not necessarily have to do with the actual weight of adolescents and teens.

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Mothers who speak negatively of their own weight influence lower levels of physical satisfaction among half of teen girls and a quarter of teen boys, a much greater effect on the eating habits and body image than most would think a parent can have when looking at themselves.

Overall, "weight talk" is discouraged by researchers who developed the new guidelines. They suggest focusing on healthy eating during the teen years, rather than an ideal number of pounds -- let alone teasing teens for their weight or appearance, which makes matters even worse.

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The focus on weight often drives teens to diet, which is unhealthy, say researchers. Teens who diet in ninth grade are three times more likely than their peers to be overweight by 12th grade, and cutting calories or nutrients can deprive teenagers of nutrition they need, often leading to symptoms of anorexia.

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"Scientific evidence increasingly shows that for teenagers, dieting is bad news," Dr. Neville Golden, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and one of the authors of AAP's new guidelines, said in a press release. "It's not unusual for us to see young people who have rapidly lost a lot of weight but are not healthy -- they end up in the hospital attached to a heart monitor with unstable vital signs."

The new guidelines have five overall recommendations for parents: Discourage dieting, skipping meals or diet pills and focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle instead of weight; encourage family meals, which give teens and parents more time to interact over food; promote a healthy body image, rather than teasing for looks, weight or meals; encourage conversations focused on being healthy and good food rather than weight; and carefully monitor weight loss in obese or overweight teens because of the potential to develop semi-starvation.

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The focus on lifestyle rather than weight can help teens be healthy and develop a more positive image of themselves, Golden said.

While obesity among children and teens is going down, the potential for children to develop eating disorders or become more obese -- depending on how they process criticism and the image they have of themselves -- is real without parents fostering more positive habits and attitudes, he said.

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"This is a dangerous category of patient because they're often missed by physicians," Golden said. "At some point, these patients may have had a real need to lose weight, but things got out of control."

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