Christmas is a holiday where food is strongly in focus. Oodles of cookies, candies, rich foods and hearty drink clash with the low-carbohydrate diets that many people swear by.
No doubt about it, Christmas poses its share of challenges for those who adamantly attempt to stick to a healthy diet.
But if the adults in a family are strongly focused on slim figures and a proper nutritious diet at all times, they can have an unhealthy influence on their kids, according to Norwegian scientists researching eating disorders.
“It’s important that we spare children from all the adult concerns about low-carb foods, dieting and fussing about weight during Christmas,” says Gunn Pettersen, an associate professor at the Department of Health and Care Sciences at the University of Tromsø. She has conducted extensive research on eating disorders among girls and boys.
Difference between complexes and disorders
In a report from the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services in 2008 researchers found that half of all the junior high school girls in Akershus County had attempted to lose weight.
Perhaps not surprisingly, they also discovered that many of those who had tried to diet also had negative body images.
Øyvind Rø is a research manager at a regional department for eating disorders (RASP) of the Division for Mental Health and Addiction at Oslo University Hospital, Ullevål.
He agrees with Pettersen that parents’ relationship to food, waistlines and sculptured bodies influences their children’s relationship to this too, but he stresses that there’s a big difference between having a somewhat negative body image in one’s teens and a developing full-fledged eating disorders.
“From my standpoint it’s important to stress that these are two separate phenomena. When you have an eating disorder it totally dominates your everyday life," says Rø.
Approximately 0.2 percent of girls and women in the age group 15 to 44 develop anorexia, and 2 percent get bulimia. About 3 percent have an excessive-eating disorder, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
“In addition to those who have eating disorders, many have negative and critical opinions about their own bodies. It’s normal to be concerned about your body and appearance, but when maintaining weight control becomes the solution to emotional problems it starts getting serious,” says Rø.
Influence from all corners
Parents’ attitudes and conduct comprise are among several risk factors for the development of eating disorders,” according to researchers.
This was also one of the finds in a study by French researchers in 2009 , which was published in the European Eating Disorders Review.
A complex and comprehensive combination of factors create the risk.
“We know that the media and peers are important for every individual who develops eating disorders, particularly in their teenage years,” says Rø.
“In addition you have the general family climate, where a strong fixation on bodies and weight has played a vital role for years as children grow up. Behind all that there are also genetic dispositions.”
Parents are role models
Jan Rosenvinge is a professor of psychology at the University of Tromsø who has worked clinically with eating disorders.
In 2006 he was one of the writers of parental guidelines on behalf of the Regional Offices for Children, Youth and Family Affairs (BUF-etat) regarding overweight and eating disorders among youngsters. These focused on the importance of parents as role models.
An example of the advice in the guidelines was:
Two other pointers involved situations that many might find familiar:
It may sound brutal or unfair to assert that normal-weight parents who go on diets are a bad influence on children and adolescents, but Rosenvinge thinks it is truer than we’d like to admit.
“And if you are in normal weight range and feel fat and unsuccessful, you shouldn’t share this with your kids. We encourage people to be conscious ‘closet-dieters’ to avoid passing body dissatisfaction and other unhealthy attitudes on to their children,” he says.
Children learn from close relations
The notion that the home is a key sphere of influence on how children and adolescents perceive their bodies has solid backing in research.
This research is primarily in education, social influence and knowledge about attitudes and triggering changes in attitudes − rather than in clinical psychology, according to Rosenvinge.
“Children generally learn about themselves and their surroundings through social influences, and especially from sources they trust or have a close relationship to. This is how we all are, and for children their parents are more influential than advertising, etc.”
“If you go around the house blatantly tossing out negative remarks like ‘people who exercise are this and that’ and ‘we like to enjoy our food’ and ‘is exercise really all that necessary?’ children will pick up on these attitudes and accept them as true and as expressions of what is natural or obvious,” he says.
Rosenvinge has observed that from some quarters it’s been deemed politically incorrect to suggest that the home is an essential arena for the prevention of eating disorders.
Our society has a tendency to think of people’s homes as their castles and kowtow to the rights of privacy, he thinks. But research supports that it’s appropriate to focus on this arena.
However, he stresses that it’s an oversimplification to claim that normal-weight parents who engage in diets are creating children with eating disorders.
“There are many other risk factors too, relating to genetics, personality and various environmental conditions. But the family plays a role,” says Rosenvinge.
Don’t only praise adherence to diets
Parents’ influence on a child’s attitude regarding food can also involve the opposite problem, where children are overweight.
With obesity problems in the family the parents’ focus on a healthy weight reduction as part of a change in diet and lifestyle can be key for overweight children managing to shed their excess weight, according to Rosenvinge.
“This is a case of what we do and say in daily life, rather than in special holidays like Christmas,” he says.
Pettersen and Rø agree that obesity in the family can necessitate a focus on weight loss.
"But if the only praise an overweight child gets involves successfully following a diet, this could be a mistake,” according to Rø.
Adults must be allowed to diet?
If you’re an adult with a normal weight you still might be tempted to diet a little, either by working out or by reducing your intake. You don’t need to be concerned about your child automatically developing an eating disorder.
“Certainly it’s understandable that as a mother or father who is getting older, you want to stay fit, and I think this is okay to let the kids know, as long as it is kept at a healthy level,” says Gunn Pettersen at the University of Tromsø.
She admits that it can be hard to assess what constitutes a healthy level. But she thinks it’s a matter of what kind of motivation you have for exercising and eating healthily.
Common sense health
Øyvind Rø thinks the general atmosphere of any health projects is a key factor to how children are affected.
“You might wonder what the impact is of a dieter who isn’t fat. Lots of normal-weight adults will say they are on diets to avoid gaining,” he says.
Whether or not it has a negative effect on the child’s body image can depend on the emotional atmosphere involved.
If the entire family is engaged in it the household will have very rigid rules about what to eat and what to avoid, and children will feel it’s wrong if they don’t adhere to these rules – this can have a negative effect,” thinks Rø.
Rø is not too disturbed about giving parents guilty feelings regarding their influence.
“It’s a known phenomenon as regards eating disorders and other mental problems that environments have their impacts.”
“But it’s essential to say that when children develop eating disorders the cause is always more complex than just the parents’ focus on dieting,” emphasizes Rø.