Learn how to prevent an eating disorder and the actions that encourage an unhealthy relationship with food in kids.
This is the last installment of my eating disorder series, Eating Disorders in Children, and I’m ending with how to prevent eating disorders. In Part 1, I started with defining the different types of eating disorders commonly found in children.
In Part 2, I discussed the signs of an eating disorder and what you can do when you recognize them.
This segment will focus on primary prevention, or what you as a parent can do to prevent eating disorders before they begin.
Is There an Eating Disorder Gene?
Studies have shown that eating disorders run in families. In other words, yes, there’s a genetic link.
Despite this, there’s also an environmental component, which means the environment in which a child is raised can encourage or discourage the development of an eating disorder.
The good news? There are things you can do to encourage a healthy relationship with food, and possibly prevent an eating disorder.
But you need to be aware of those actions that can promote eating disorders.
Actions that Promote Eating Disorders
Sometimes I think it’s human nature to criticize ourselves.
Especially our bodies.
Or others’ bodies.
Whether we recognize it or not, we beat ourselves up about the way we look, what we eat, or just how we measure up compared to others. All of this can encourage an unhealthy relationship with ourself, while setting up an environment that may encourage disordered eating, or a full-blown eating disorder, in our kids.
Here are some of the common things we do that may encourage an environment conducive to the development of an eating disorder:
- Make negative comments about our own or others’ weight, or worse, a child’s weight.
- Label foods as “good” or “bad.”
- Use food to reward or punish your child.
- Follow fad diets that are popular in the media or encourage your child or teen to diet and lose weight.
- Become overly focused on the calorie content and grams of fat or sugar in foods.
- Restrict sweets and high calorie foods from your child.
- Make your child clean their plate when they’re full.
How to Prevent an Eating Disorder
Although it’s impossible to control all the influences outside of your family home, your actions, words and attitude about food, bodies and eating can have a powerful impact on your child.
Here are some easy ways to make sure you’re setting up an environment of body positivity and self-worth, while encouraging a healthy relationship with food.
1. Encourage a positive body image.
A positive body image stems from a healthy self-esteem.
Be sure to encourage healthy self-esteem, particularly in the formative years of childhood.
2. Become a critical viewer of the media.
Children are sensitive to media images and messages. They believe them, often without question.
Teach your child to question what they see and hear because images are often photoshopped (that’s why bodies look so perfect in magazines and on social media!).
Marketing message can often inflate the benefits of risky diets and exercise habits, and deflate their risks.
3. Talk about yourself with respect and appreciation.
Your child loves and adores you. Kids think their parents are perfect (most of the time).
When you put yourself or others down, complain about your body, or comment on the bodies of others, children learn to do that too, and may turn that unhealthy criticism onto themselves.
4. Love your child for what is inside, not because of external appearance.
Highlight your child’s inner qualities such as loyalty, commitment, and generosity over physical appearance like beauty, thinness, or athleticism.
Be a momma bear when you have to, diverting body comments with character highlights.
“She’s a diligent worker.”
“He’s a kind and generous young man.”
“You couldn’t find a more loyal friend!”
5. Have a neutral view about all foods.
All foods can fit into a nutritious diet, especially if you have a healthy food balance in place.
No single food will tank your child’s health or weight, and no food will elevate you child’s health or weight.
It’s the day-to-day balance of nutritious and indulgent foods over time that make or break health.
6. Allow your child to determine when he/she is full.
Learning how much to eat and when to stop — also known as self-regulation– is a hallmark of healthy eating.
Kids need to learn this throughout childhood.
What’s Your Feeding Style?
A Love with Limits feeding style is associated with preventing childhood obesity and eating disorders and has a diplomatic edge.
Is it having a positive or negative impact on your child?
Family meals matter
Regular family meals are associated with preventing disordered eating and promote healthier body weight, less behavioral problems, and better grades in school.
You have a number of chances to interact with your child each day. Each is an opportunity for you to promote a confident eater that has a healthy relationship with food.
You can make a difference and prevent an eating disorder in your child.
Need More Help?
My website, The Nourished Child, has workshops, classes and guidebooks to help you feed and nourish your child better. Check it out!
Originally posted in 2014 | updated November 2020