Eating Disorder Prevention (Part 2): How to Raise Kids Who Love Their Bodies (and Don’t Diet)

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on March 16, 2010

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It’s bath time.  My 3-year old daughter stands naked in front of the mirror dancing, singing and relishing each movement her body makes. One thing is obvious: she loves her body (and herself) in the most pure way. 

I want to keep her like this forever but I know there will come a day when she’ll mutter the dreaded words, “I look fat.”  And then, like millions of people do every day, she might even take action by dieting.

This is the second post in my eating disorders prevention series. The first article provides an eating disorder overview: definitions, statistics and potential causes. Now we are ready to address the first “preventative factor” parents can put in place.

“It’s not just about what parents don’t do,” says Sari Shepphird PhD, eating disorder specialist and author of 100 Questions & Answers About Anorexia Nervosa.  “It’s about the actions they take.”

But Shepphird makes it clear that this is not about placing blame or making parents totally responsible.  Instead, it’s giving parents the tools they need to steer their children in the right direction.

1. Focus on healthy behaviors, not weight:

Abby Ellin was 12 years old when her grandmother told her she had to lose weight before visiting her in Florida.  Like a lot of kids hitting the big P (puberty), she put on weight.   

“I was always told that I had to be thin and beautiful,” she says.  “I became obsessed with food, had days of the week for binging and other days for being good.” She spent 6 years in kids’ weight loss camp, had disordered eating patterns and writes about her experiences in Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat-Camper Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight, And How Parents Can (And Can’t). Help

According to a report from the Academy for Eating Disorders, focusing on weight and appearance can encourage eating disordered behaviors and negatively affect self esteem.  Instead, they encourage prevention programs to focus on healthy behaviors, not weight. 

Most health experts agree that weight should be de-emphasized in favor of healthy behaviors such as balanced eating, fewer sweetened beverages, more physical activity and minimal screen time.  This is true for all kids, not just those that carry excess weight. 

But avoiding the topic altogether may not bode well for a kid that is obviously overweight.

“Most of the parents I see are afraid to discuss weight with their child because they fear they will say the wrong thing”,” says Jill Castle, MS, RD, pediatric nutrition specialist and owner of Pediatric Nutrition of Green Hills in Nashville, TN. “Instead of avoiding the subject, they can acknowledge their child’s feelings and help him or her develop a proactive, healthy approach .” 

“I remember growing out of a pair of pants in middle school, and being scared to tell my mom because I knew she’d start with the “I’m not buying you new pants because you need to lose weight” thing. I was never actually overweight, just a little pudgy, and I know now she just wanted me to be healthy, but it put a lot of pressure on me.” Gabriela, 20-year-old college student who has recovered from an eating disorder.

2. Discourage unhealthy dieting:  

According to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, almost half of 9 to 11 year olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.  But even more of their family members – 82 % — are on-and-off dieters.  And because dieting is the behavior most linked to eating disorders, this is a major problem.

The first step parents can take is to have a diet-free household, meaning they don’t diet or model such behaviors.  According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2000, 5-year old girls with dieting mothers were twice as likely to have ideas about dieting.

It’s important to remember that dieting is not good for two reasons. First, research shows it’s ineffective and is associated with weight gain over time.  And second, going on and off diets has a negative impact on quality of life. 

But even if parents don’t diet they might approach food from a diet-type mentality.

“Don’t label food as good or bad,” Castle says.  “Avoid focusing on nutrition numbers like grams of protein, fat or sugar.”

Instead, Castle explains, be neutral about sweets and empty-calorie foods.  Offer them less frequently but don’t make such a big deal out of them.  “What you want is the kid who can walk by the M-n-Ms and not even notice them or take a few and go on his merry way.” 

But even with a diet-free household, kids can be exposed to their friends’ unhealthy dieting practices.  “When I was 15 years old I learned how to throw up from a friend,” says Elisabeth Armstrong, who was diagnosed with an eating disorder in college and chronicles her recovery on her blog, Joggers Life.  “If someone stronger had been there to help me, it would have made a big difference.”

We’ll talk more about early signs and symptoms of eating disorders later, but if you suspect your child is starting down the “diet” road, talk to him or her about it.  Explain the difference between a healthy lifestyle and unhealthy dieting practices.

“I wish my mom hadn’t been so obsessed with dieting and exercise when I was little. I know it’s not her fault, but I grew up seeing food as a reward or a security blanket or even an enemy.” Shelly, college student who is recovering from disordered eating patterns. 

3. Help your child develop a positive body image:

“I think one of the best things parents can do is positive talk. Being told that you’re beautiful no matter what makes a difference!” Caronae, 20-year old girl recovering from depression and poor body image. She blogs at Runwritetherapylife.com  

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, societal factors associated with eating disorders include pressure to be thin, a narrow definition of beauty and cultural norms that value physical appearance over inner qualities. 

But how do we raise children to be satisfied with their bodies in a culture that constantly strives for perfection?

“Sit down with your child and tell them that everyone is built genetically different,” Castle says.  “Some are bigger, some are smaller and some are in between.”

Explain that the images in magazines and movies are unrealistic – and do not represent the population as a whole.  Some women may naturally be that thin, but many are not.

It’s also vital for parents to make sure their children know they are loved for who they are, even if they have a weight problem.  Of course all parents love their kids, but sometimes they can (unintentionally) send messages that make kids feel that their acceptance is tied to looking a certain way.

“My dad once told my sister that I could whoop her in a fight,” says Armstrong.  “I took that as meaning I’m the big, less attractive sister.”  She also says her parents restricted her food intake but not that of her siblings, making her feel like she wasn’t as loveable being overweight.  

And last, and maybe most important, is for parents to be a positive role model when it comes to body image.  “Parents need to do a self-check on themselves,” says Shepphird. “Kids see how parents relate to their own bodies and emulate that.”

This may be the tallest order yet.  What person do you ever hear saying, “I just love my body,” not to mention all the insecurities that come with aging.  When I find myself criticizing the way I look, I try to see myself through my kids’ eyes.  As far as they’re concerned, I’m the be-all and end-all. 

I understand this because I think my mom is one of the most beautiful women I know.  And my husband is even more attractive to me now that he is a father.  I believe the love we have for our kids, and visa versa, can help us appreciate beauty in a more rich way.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look our best, become healthier or even lose excess weight.  But there is so much more to life than what someone looks like.  And the sooner we get that message to our kids, the better off they’ll be.

“I wish my mom had known that her lifelong dieting and body-loathing was unnecessary because she is absolutely beautiful the way she is, and the ONLY person who sees something wrong with her is her.” Beth, 17-year old girl from Australia who was diagnosed with an eating disorder last year.

Previous: 3 Things Every Parent Must Know About Eating Disorders
Nect: How to Maximize the Power of Family Meals

Resources
50 Ways to Lose the 3 Ds: Dieting, Drive for Thinness, and Body Dissatisfaction

References
Abramovitz BA, Birch LL. Five-year-old girls’ ideas about dieting are predicted by their mothers’ dieting. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000 Oct;100(10):1157-63.

Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, Lew A, Samuels B, Chatman J. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. American Psychologist. Vol 62(3), Apr 2007, 220-233.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Merri Ann March 17, 2010 at 7:15 am

Probably the best thing I’ve ever read on this subject. The examples were excellent. This is the gift I hope to give to my children … the ability to just love who you are … period.

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Kathleen Cuneo March 17, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Wonderful post Maryann! I hope you reach lots of parents with this message.

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ioana March 17, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Hope that many mentalities will be changed after reading this article or any other articles regarding this matter. We have to understand that our children have to be healthy and not wanting to be thin at any cost

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Jan (Family Bites) March 17, 2010 at 4:26 pm

This is a wonderful article. I have very active sons who eat a well balanced diet, so I don’t feel that I have too many concerns with respect to this – at least not now. But we recently had my five year old niece sleepover and while we were walking home from the park she told me that her and her Mom were on a diet and that she hoped she would be able to fit into a size 4 belt soon. I was horrified and saddened that at such a young age she’s already thinking these thoughts.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 17, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Thanks for the comments! I think many parents know this but may not know how easily their kids (especially girls) absorb this stuff.

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Kelly March 18, 2010 at 9:27 am

Wonderful post. So thoughtful and informative. Makes me feel good that I am apparently doing some things right with my 4 year old. I talk about sugary foods versus healthier foods. Hopefully soon he will not say “but I just love sugary foods the best!”

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Beth March 20, 2010 at 4:22 am

Thank you so much for this post. I think you have said everything that needs to be said to parents regarding avoiding eating disorders in their kids… and I admire and respect you so much for putting this out there. Just think, you could save lives with this post. On behalf of everyone who has ever had, has, or will have an eating disorder… thank you. And I’m honoured that you included my words! :)
xoxox
Beth

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 20, 2010 at 10:16 am

Thank you Beth. I really appreciate it!

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