Adults who were pressured by their parents to diet during adolescence may have a higher risk of obesity and eating disorders as adults than people who weren't urged to lose weight as teens, a U.S. study suggests.
As parents, adults who endured dieting pressure during their teen years were also more likely to encourage their own children to watch what they ate, researchers report in Pediatrics, online March 6.
"When adolescents were encouraged to diet by their parents, they were more likely to be overweight, engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eat and diet, and to have lower body satisfaction as adults," said lead study author Jerica Berge of the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
"These results suggest that a pattern is created and passed from one generation to the next," Berge said by email.
For the study, researchers examined data from eating surveys that 556 participants completed in school when they were 15 years old on average, as well as results from online surveys they completed as adults 15 years later.
In the first surveys, 37 percent of the teens said they were encouraged to diet by their parents. They were more likely to experience this if they were girls, younger in age, from low-income households, overweight or obese, or non-white.
When the participants grew up, those who had been pushed to diet were 25 percent more likely to be overweight and 37 percent more likely to be obese than the adults who weren't pressured to lose weight during adolescence, the study found.
While binge eating was rare, it was 72 percent more likely among the adults who had been pressured to diet as teens.
As parents, people who were pushed to diet during their teen years were also roughly 50 percent more likely to push their own kids to diet and to talk to children about their weight.
Families with a parent who was pressured to diet growing up were also more likely to tease one another about weight or openly talk about each other's weight, researchers found.
The study wasn't a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how dieting pressure during adolescence might translate into certain behaviors related to food and weight in adulthood.
Beyond its small size, another limitation is that researchers relied on participants to accurately report whether they were overweight or obese. Most of the participants were women, too. And there weren't enough fathers in the study to explore how experiences in adolescence might influence how they interacted with their own kids about food and weight.
Even so, the study offers fresh evidence that even well-intended efforts by parents to encourage kids to slim down can backfire, said Katherine Bauer, co-author of an accompanying editorial, and a nutrition specialist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.
"Many people, adults and teens alike, desire to eat healthier and achieve a healthier weight," Bauer said by email. "But achieving this is really hard when there's so much misinformation about nutrition out there and so much pressure for quick fixes."
Given all of this pressure, it makes sense that teens who feel that their parents want them to lose weight might try unhealthy things to get there like skipping meals, taking supplements or relying on extremely low-calorie cleanses, Bauer said. These diets aren't sustainable, and people often end up gaining weight instead of losing it, making matters worse.
"Especially then in our weight-focused society, it's very easy to get caught up in a high focus on weight and eating, and it's the default to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you or your child are not the 'ideal' size or shape," Bauer said.
"Ultimately though, once we're aware of our beliefs and behaviors, with the right resources we can create more supportive environments that focus on health and wellbeing, rather than the number on the scale."