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Like Mother, Like Daughter at Table

Nutrition * Women who are trying to stay thin are sending messages to girls that appearance is more important than health.

November 02, 2000|From ASSOCIATED PRESS

Young girls are what they eat, and, right now, they are eating a lot of low-fat and low-nutrition foods.

Diet sodas have replaced milk at the table and some girls skip meals altogether.

Where do they learn these poor eating habits? Mostly from their mothers, according to registered dietitian Althea Zanecosky.

"I think girls really do emulate their mothers more than these women realize," said Zanecosky, who also is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn.

When a young girl sees her mother pick at her food instead of eating it, it sends a signal that it's OK to sacrifice nutrition in an effort to stay thin, said Zanecosky, the mother of two daughters, ages 9 and 13.

"Kids are getting the message that fat is bad and dieting is good."

A report in the October edition of the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. found that, depending on the phraseology used, between one-third and two-thirds of the 197 5-year-old girls who participated in a study were able to articulate ideas about dieting. The findings also suggested that maternal dieting influenced their daughters' developing ideas.

Mothers not only help shape their children's eating habits by what is served at the table, they also play a central role in transmitting cultural perceptions of weight and appearance, according to the Pennsylvania State University researchers.

"Given that dieting for weight control is pervasive among women, the young children have many opportunities to observe and learn from maternal weight-loss attempts, which may include both health-promoting and health-compromising weight loss strategies," the researchers wrote.

Adults need to be aware of how they view themselves and how they convey those impressions to young girls, said Megan Shull, an educational psychologist specializing in girls' adolescent development.

Shull is in the middle of a cross-country bike ride called Girls on the Move, a program that carries a positive message about self-worth to young girls.

Potential role models also need to pay attention to how they talk about other people, added Shull in a phone interview while she was in Iowa.

"If an adult is constantly criticizing how other people look, the girl will have a more critical voice about herself and others."

Young girls see signs all around them that thin is in.

Zanecosky noted that the majority of young women seen on television, in movies and in music videos--such as pop queen Christina Aguilera and Courteney Cox Arquette of "Friends"--are very thin, and the clothes these women are wearing are designed for very slim shapes.

"My 9-year-old has asked me, 'Do I look too fat in this? Do my thighs look fat?' I didn't think about this when I was her age," Zanecosky said.

Kids should be allowed to be kids, she said, if they want to have a cookie, they can have one; just give it to them with a glass of milk.

Instead of worrying about their weight, girls should concentrate on being healthy. Mothers can encourage that by pointing out healthy women, like the players on the U.S. Olympic Soccer Team, Zanecosky advised in a phone interview from her Philadelphia home.

"I don't think any child needs to 'diet.' If kids are overweight, they need to be more active."

She suggests hiking or getting a dog that needs to be walked as ways to get children who don't like traditional exercise to get moving.

Another thing mothers can do to foster good eating habits is to sit down at the table with her kids every night for dinner, preferably with a glass of skim milk as her beverage.

Osteoporosis will likely be a problem for today's kids after they hit middle age because milk--a great source of calcium--is being eliminated from their diets, Zanecosky predicted.

Mothers also shouldn't talk about dieting or losing weight in front of their children, she said.

"It's OK for moms to be dieting, just don't talk about it. And choose healthy exercise. The mom may do it to lose weight, but don't broadcast that reason."

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