The Mother-Daughter Weight Connection

Help your daughter have a healthy attitude about her weight.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Raising healthy children - especially girls -- is challenging in an age when the media sets unrealistic standards about the perfect body. It's all too easy for children to fall prey to eating disorders or unhealthy preoccupations with weight, food, or body image.

While both mothers and fathers have tremendous influence on daughters and sons, it seems that good relationships between mothers and daughters are especially important for helping girls grow up with good eating habits, self-esteem, and a positive body image.

Consider a study published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. It found that teenage girls' desire to be thin or lose weight was based at least in part on their perception of what their mothers wanted for them. Girls in the study were more likely to diet if their moms had done so. A third of the girls in the study reported wanting to be thinner (only 8% of boys expressed this wish).

We all know that excess weight can contribute to health risks and disease, but being obsessed with weight can lead to some very serious conditions, such as anorexia or bulimia. The challenge, experts say, is to help our daughters find the right balance.

"It is a very delicate balance between promoting a healthy weight and not placing too much importance on body weight," says Evelyn Tribole, RD, author of the antidiet, self-help book, Intuitive Eating.

The key, experts say, is to choose lifestyle habits like healthy eating and regular exercise for reasons of good health -- not just to lose weight or fit into a special dress. Focus on the health benefits of these lifestyle changes to help free your daughter from thinking her self-worth is equated with her weight, Tribole says.

It's Never Too Early to Start

It's also important for parents to be good role models, experts say. That means watching what you say within earshot of your impressionable daughters, from a very young age. (I recently overheard a 4-year-old girl tell her mom she didn't want to eat a cookie because "it will make me fat.")

"Moms have to be careful of not only what they say to their daughters but also their body language," says clinical psychologist Peggy Elam, PhD. "Little girls pick up when mom complains about her own weight, makes comments about others or shows her fat bias through expressive body language."

Be aware of your own dieting practices, and your beliefs and prejudices about weight, and keep them to yourself so you don't set your daughter up for a lifetime of dieting in pursuit of an unrealistic body shape, advises Elam.

"Girls restrict their food intake, and when they are unsuccessful at attaining their dream weight, they become depressed and feel like failures, which sets up feelings of low self-esteem," Elam says.

Elam's advice? Don't focus on meeting external standards, but help your girls be the best they can be.

Establishing Good Eating Habits

Experts say that the best place to start helping your daughter establish good eating habits that will last a lifetime is at the family dinner table.

It can be difficult to get everyone in the family to the dinner table at one time, what with lessons, team practices, and work schedules. But research shows that eating as a family has great benefits for kids of all ages, from better nutrition to improved family dynamics.

"It fosters good communication and an opportunity for the family to bond, connect and feel the love and support." says Elam.

Eating together is a unifying experience for the family. It's also a chance for parents to serve as role models in manners, social skills, and healthy food choices.

Planning, shopping, and preparing meals also provide opportunities for mothers and children to bond. Spending time in the kitchen with your daughter or son allows you to talk together and work as a team, and helps your children learn more about food while encouraging their independence and self-esteem.

House Rules Can Help

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that teens tended to make healthier food choices -- like choosing fruits and vegetables over sweets -- when their parents established simple household eating rules. Kids with the healthiest diets lived in homes where healthy snacks, vegetables at dinner, and fruit at breakfast were encouraged, and sweets, desserts, and soft drinks limited but not forbidden.