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How to Prevent an Eating Disorder in Kids

Learn how to prevent an eating disorder and the actions that encourage an unhealthy relationship with food in kids.

Eating Disorders in Children: How Parents Can Prevent Them [Part 3]

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:

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.

Exude positivity when it comes to your own body!

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.  

Eating Disorders in Children: How Parents Can Prevent Them [Part 3]

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.  

What’s your feeding style?

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

Eating Disorders in Children: Red Flags for Parents to Recognize [Part 2]

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Eating Disorders in Children: Recognize Red Flags

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Eating Disorders in Children: The Facts & Stats

Eating Disorders in Children: What Parents Need to Know [Part 1]
  1. Any suggestions on how not to restrict treats and junky food when they are being offered at every turn – the gym class, the school birthday celebration, the school cooking project, birthday parties, playdates etc? Are these times to be neutral? It feels somewhat irresponsible not to offer limits or support in choosing when to have treats – ” if you choose this one now you won’t have another later” My kids definitely don’t have a “negative” view of treats and snack foods like goldfish crackers, they are drawn to then at parties etc. and I am trying to desensitize them by making them more available and less of a big deal at home. Any suggestions on how best to limit the obsession with junk, and to get through it as quickly as possible?

    1. Cate,
      You voice a concern that many parents have–how to limit without restricting. Restricting food often backfires and results in overeating and weight gain. One thing you can do is keep your home stocked with minimal treat foods (what I call FUN foods) so that when these foods are eaten outside of the home it isn’t as big a deal. The other thing is to have a guideline about FUN foods–1 or 2 per day and let your child decide what the treat will be, that way he/she will feel some control over the decision-making.

  2. Pretty great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.