Whether children try extreme diets or binge eating might hinge on how their parents talk to them about their weight.

University of Minnesota researchers reported Monday that adolescents were less likely to try extreme weight-loss techniques — which are known paths to eating disorders and even weight gain — if their parents focused on healthful eating and avoided discussing their children's bodies and weight.

Talking about healthful eating gives children solutions, while talking about weight embarrasses them, said Jerica Berge, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the university's department of family medicine and community health.

"You're trying to find an approach that allows them to want to change without feeling ashamed or guilty," she said.

The study was inspired by the many parents of healthy and overweight children who asked Berge during primary care clinic visits about how to talk to their kids about weight. Approximately 20 percent of Minnesota ninth-graders and 23 percent of 12th-graders consider themselves overweight, according to the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey.

Studies clearly show that children are driven to unhealthy weight-loss attempts when their parents tease them or call them fat. But there is less research comparing two more constructive approaches: a serious, straight-talk approach about children's weight vs. a sensitive approach that focuses on ways to lose weight.

"In both situations, parents have a good intention," Berge said. "They don't go into it wanting to make their children feel bad. But the way you say it does make a difference."

2,800 youths surveyed

Berge's team analyzed a 2010 U survey of 2,800 Twin Cities adolescents about their eating and health behaviors, and a second survey of the parents of many of those adolescents. They found that 64 percent of overweight adolescents attempted dieting or unhealthy weight-loss tactics when their mothers discussed their weight with them. Only 40 percent of the overweight adolescents did this when their mothers confined discussions to healthy eating and behaviors.

Berge's study defined discussions about weight as those in which parents told their children they were overweight or that they specifically needed to eat better because they were overweight.

Published in the latest edition of the JAMA Pediatrics medical journal, the study does not prove that parental discussions about weight and weight loss cause children to pursue unhealthy weight-loss tactics. It is possible that parental discussions about weight are just indicators of other problems in a home that prompt children to attempt risky weight loss.

Berge's discussions with parents in her clinic often occur before children show any sign of being overweight.

Watch words as well as weight

Children are at different stages when they visit Dr. Claudia Fox at the U's specialty pediatric weight-loss clinic, which uses weight-management programs and even surgeries to help children who are severely obese. But Fox said it is equally important with these patients for their parents to focus on the means to health and not on their kids' weight.

Parents need to take that focus seriously, added Fox, who wasn't involved with the study. It won't work if a son hears one thing from his mother, and then "overhears her talking to his dad that, 'Wow, he's getting really big,' or 'Did you see how he could barely fit into that pair of shorts?' "

Sue Riesgraf said it is difficult for her to avoid the subjects of weight and body image with three teenagers at home, given the societal and peer pressures they face. The development director of the Emily Program Foundation, the charitable arm of a St. Paul-based eating disorder program, said she talks openly with her teens about these issues, but in context with overall health and how they are linked to achieving personal goals.

"I have one who is a soccer player," Riesgraf said. "She understands how to take care of her body and prepare it so she can be at her best. It's not about weight. It's about how to help her body perform its best."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744