At some point during adolescence, nearly all our daughters try to lose weight. Maybe it happens when a girl is 10 and a growth spurt thickens her waist, or when she is 12 and wants to wear smaller jeans. For many girls, first diets are events they move through and beyond. But for others, that first diet is an initiation into a lifelong struggle with food and body size. Here’s how you can help.
If your daughter is restricting her food intake, ask her to tell you about her diet. She is likely to focus on calories, fat grams and the size of her body. Adolescent girls are acutely aware of their hips, thighs, stomachs, breasts and upper arms—all the places women naturally store fat. Listen to your daughter carefully without interrupting. Resist the urge to correct her false perceptions. Then help her explore the reasons for her diet by asking, “If your diet worked and you became the size you want to be, what would happen? How would your life be different?” This is your opportunity to learn who your daughter wishes to be and what’s missing from her life.
Girls often believe that if they look “right” they’ll be accepted and loved. They diet as a way of asking, “Am I good enough?’ Can I be who I really am, or must I mold myself to fit what others urge me to be?” Let your daughter know your love for her doesn’t fluctuate with the numbers on a scale.
Because there’s so much information available about weight loss, most girls assume they know all they need to know about dieting. In fact, they seldom do. No one-size-fits-all diet from a magazine or weight-loss center is likely to suit your daughter’s adolescent body. If she is truly overweight, have her talk with her pediatrician, a therapist or a nutrition counselor about healthy eating habits. In the meantime, address these two myths popular among girls:
The magic formula. Many of my adolescent clients believe they know the magic dieting formula—eat fewer calories and exercise more. But that’s not the whole story. Explain to your daughter that metabolism happens only in her muscle cells, so she needs to nourish her muscles with enough protein and carbohydrates at each meal to make her metabolic rate burn at its peak. If she’s exercising more but going hungry, her body will not burn fat efficiently. Over time, this pattern actually lowers her metabolic rate, making it more difficult for her to lose weight. At mealtime, you might ask her, “What protein and carbs will you feed those hungry muscles?”
Excluding pleasure. Many girls try to diet by avoiding fatty foods and desserts. In truth, cutting out all pleasurable foods always backfires. The girl who deprives herself of fat and of the satisfaction it gives her body, eventually feels deprived. She develops cravings, gives in and binges. Then she feels guilty, deprives herself again and gives in once more. This is how some girls establish a cycle of dieting and failing that lasts well into adulthood. Encourage your daughter to eat reasonable amounts of the foods she loves, even those high in fat.
Messages from Home
You may want to use your daughter’s first diet as an opportunity to look at your own relationship with food. What messages do you send her about dieting and weight? Do you feel comfortable serving as her role model? If you struggle with your weight, don’t hesitate to see a professional. Then you’ll be better able to guide your daughter.
For helpful information, suggest your daughter read The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls or Right Moves: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Fit and Feeling Good. Even more important, encourage her to notice her body’s messages. When is she hungry, and when is she full? Which foods help her feel energetic and which ones make her sleepy or tired? Each time you remind her to tune in to her body’s messages, you get her to get to know her body better and, ultimately, love it more.
About the author: Carol Beck is the author of Nourishing Your Daughter: Help your Child Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food and her Body.