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Talking weight loss with kids may increase their unhealthy eating behavior

When talking to your kids about their weight issues, it's probably better that you emphasize healthy eating over dieting and losing the pounds.

What's more, research suggests that dads might want to abstain from making any weight loss suggestions.

"It may be important to educate fathers to avoid any form of weight-related conversation with their adolescents," the authors noted.

A new study published June 25 in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that adolescents whose parents who talked to them about good eating habits were significantly less likely to engage in harmful eating behaviors than those who were told to diet.

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children over the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eighteen percent of children 12 to 19 in 2010 were obese. More than one third of children would be considered overweight or obese that same year.

Obese kids have higher risk factors for cardiovascular disease. They're also more likely to have prediabetes, be at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems.

In the long term, obese children are more likely to be obese adults, which puts them at greater risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis. There's also a heightened chance of developing many types of cancer.

Researchers asked parents of 2,348 adolescents -- average age 14.4 -- in 2009 and 2010 about how they talked to their child about food and weight issues. About half of the children involved in the study were overweight. The study authors were able to talk to most of the mothers and about half of the fathers.

About one-third of children who were not overweight got a diet and weight talk from their mother and fathers surveyed. Another one out of four parents talked to their kids about healthy eating habits. More than a third didn't talk about the subject at all.

When it came to the overweight kids, 60 percent of mothers and 59 percent of fathers said they talked to their children about the need for them to go on a diet and lose weight. If mothers lead the talk, 64 percent of adolescents admitted to engaging in unhealthy weight-control behaviors, such as using laxatives or fasting.

Only 15 percent of mothers and 14 percent of fathers with overweight adolescents chose to talk about healthful eating. With moms leading the discussion on good food to eat, just 41 percent of the subjects admitted to unhealthy eating behaviors.

With fathers especially, those who talked about weight loss and diets had kids who were much more likely to have unhealthy weight-control behaviors than those who didn't talk at all or talked about healthy eating habits. About 48 percent of kids whose fathers who talked about healthy eating admitted to unhealthy dieting, compared to 64 percent whose dad told them to lose weight.

Twenty percent of mothers and 23 percent of fathers of overweight kids did not talk at all about diet or weight in any manner.

"Dads should never comment on girls' or daughters' bodies," Mary Jo Rapini, co-author of "Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom about Health, Sex, or Whatever...," told TIME.

Rapini, who was not involved in the study, added that is important that daughters "feel loved by their dad and confident enough to work on their body issues."

Binge-eating was the same regardless of which method the parents used to talk to their kids.

If both parents addressed healthy eating issues, the kids were less likely to engage in dieting and unhealthy eating habits.

"The most important thing is modeling. The kids will follow more what their parents do, rather than what they say," Dr. Russell Marx, chief science officer with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) told HealthLine. "If you're modeling good behavior, it's going to come through."

He added that parents should be careful not to embarrass or put down their kids when talking about health and weight. If a child start showing signs of an eating disorder, medical professionals should be involved because there could other issues may be at play, including diabetes and depression.

"If you harass, it becomes a power struggle," he said. "It's about modeling the behavior."

The study did not address whether parents talking to their children about weight and dieting actually caused disordered eating behavior, or whether they were more likely to have that talk because of a child's behavior. However, it found the two factors were significantly linked.