Teen weight control behavior may reflect mothers' attitudes on weight

December 05, 2005

CHICAGO - Teenagers are more likely to think about wanting to be thin, and to be frequent dieters, if they accurately perceive that being thin is important to their mothers, according to a study in the December issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

The association between body weight of children and their parents is known to be affected by genetic and cultural factors. However, less is known about the relationship between the weight concerns and weight control practices of parents and their children. Mothers are thought to play a role in the transmission of cultural values about body weight and shape. Studies show that girls whose mothers diet and are concerned with their weight and shape are more likely than their peers to develop unhealthy weight control practices, according to background information in the article.

Alison E. Field, Sc.D., of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital and Children's Hospital, Boston, and colleagues assessed the association between weight concerns and weight control practices of adolescents and their mothers. The authors conducted a cross-sectional study of 5,331 girls and 3,881 boys, with a mean [average] age of 14.9 years (range, 11.8 to 18.4 years), and their mothers. Participants were included in the analysis if both the adolescent and his or her mother returned a questionnaire mailed in 1999 and provided information on weight, height, and weight concerns.

Weight concerns were more common among girls, with 33 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys thinking frequently about wanting to be thinner. Approximately 54 percent of mothers reported that they thought about wanting to be thinner a lot or always, and 22 percent reported frequently attempting to lose weight during the past year. Also, 0.4 percent of girls and 3.7 percent of boys accurately perceived that their weight was important to their mother. Eight percent of girls had frequently dieted during the past year.

"Although few adolescents accurately perceived that their weight was important to their mother, adolescent boys and adolescent 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 authors report.

"Being overweight is associated with many adverse health consequences, so parents are justified in not wanting their adolescents to be overweight," the authors write. "However, it is essential to strike a balance between promoting a healthy weight and not placing too much emphasis on the importance of weight."

"Parents should be encouraged to be role models in incorporating physical activity and healthy nutrition into everyday lifestyle patterns, rather than implementing them as weight control strategies," they conclude. "In addition, it would be advisable for clinicians who treat overweight and weight-concerned adolescents and young adults to promote physical activity for benefits other than weight control, such as helping to improve self-esteem." (Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005;159:1121-1126. Available pre-embargo to the media at www.jamamedia.org.)
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Editor's Note: This study was supported by a grant from the Boston Obesity Nutrition Research Center, Boston; by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; by the Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, Mich.; and by a grant from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Rockville, Md.

For more information, contact JAMA/Archives Media Relations at 312/464-JAMA (5262) or e-mail mediarelations@jama-archives.org.

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