This is the last installment of my eating disorder series, Eating Disorders in Children, and I am 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.
Studies have shown that eating disorders run in families. In other words, there is a genetic link. Despite this, there is 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 raise a child free from an eating disorder.
How to Prevent Eating Disorders in Kids
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.
Encourage a positive body image.
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!) and marketing message can often inflate benefits of risky diets and exercise habits and deflate their risks.
Choose to 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!
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.
Have a neutral view about all foods.
All foods can fit into a nutritious diet, especially if you have a 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 that are enjoyable to eat.
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 and kids need to learn this throughout childhood.
Actions that Promote Eating Disorders
- Make negative comments about your own or others’ weight, or worse, your 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 to diet to 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 if they are full.
Key Reminders to Preventing Eating Disorders
What you say sticks.
You definitely don’t want your comments about food, eating, body weight, shape, or size to affect your child’s self-esteem.
Your feeding style is important.
An authoritative feeding style is associated with preventing childhood obesity and eating disorders and has a “love with limits” approach. What type of feeder are you, and 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.