5 tips to help prevent eating disorders in children

Starting next week, the National Eating Disorders Association is hosting National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. During this week, specialists around the country aim to provide education and understanding so that more individuals, especially caregivers to children, can identify the warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders.

The United Kingdom’s charity Beat Eating Disorders says anorexia is the deadliest “of any psychiatric disorder, from medical complications associated with the illness as well as suicide.” In the U.S., eating disorders are the second-deadliest of all mental health disorders, behind opioid addiction, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. And they’re on the rise. The rates for eating disorders worldwide went from 3.5% in 2000-2006 to 7.8% in 2013-2018, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Many factors can play a role in the development of an eating disorder including physical, emotional and social issues. It’s important to address each of these when it comes to prevention.

“Prevention is any systematic attempt to change the circumstances that promote, initiate, sustain or intensify problems,” according to the National Eating Disorders Association’s website. There is a lot a caregiver can do to foster an environment that doesn’t contribute to a disordered relationship with food and body.

1. Understand body diversity and celebrate it

We all come in different shapes and sizes. Teach your kids that all bodies are good bodies. Do not talk negatively about your own body. Refrain from making comments about your child’s body or other children’s bodies, no matter the size. When they come to you with questions about bodies or make comments about bodies, approach these situations with curiosity rather than judgment. It is normal for children to notice different bodies.

2. Avoid diet culture

Notice that we live in a culture that normalizes disordered eating and diet talk. Many symptoms that meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder are common but not at all normal and can be harmful. When you learn about diet culture, you can teach your children about it. This gives them power to recognize it and call it out. Identifying diet culture may help you keep food-neutral. This allows for all types of food to fit into their lifestyle and fosters body trust.

If your child comes to you with a desire to make a change to their diet, get curious. Ask questions and try to understand the intentions behind it. If you notice any warning signs, seek professional support. Early intervention from a Health at Every Size (HAES)-aligned treatment team can derail the progression of an eating disorder.

3. Get support if you have a disordered relationship with food

If you feel like you can’t trust your body around certain foods, don’t recognize your own body cues, have forbidden foods or practice strict feeding practices, your children will notice. If you are seeking weight loss or encourage your child to diet, take time to learn about the harmful effects of dieting. While correlation does not indicate causation, it is important to understand that seeking intentional weight loss through dieting or fixating on nutrition and body size can be linked to eating disorders. While you may not meet all the criteria for an eating disorder, you may still have a disordered relationship with food and deserve access to a treatment team. Professional support will give you the confidence you need to raise happily fed children who respect their bodies.

4. Maintain your role in the feeding experience while allowing for autonomy

As a caregiver, it is your job to provide food through regular feeding experiences. But it is up to them to choose what to eat and how much. Avoid pressuring your kids to eat, rewarding them with food, and forcing your food rules on them. Sometimes parents can get caught up in their job of providing the food. This can look a lot like diet culture and control. We are all designed to enjoy the eating experience, children included. If you find that your child is obsessed with certain foods, they may lack satisfaction from their meals. Allow them to choose more fun foods and pair them with meals.

5. Nonappearance-based compliments

Teach your children to give sincere, nonappearance-based compliments by example. Practice saying things like: “You are such a great listener,” “I notice that you are trying your best,” or “I love how you always step up and help me.” These types of statements build self-esteem and show children that they are more than their physical appearance. Self-esteem built on looking “cute,” “pretty,” or “tiny” is a fragile foundation as it cannot last. Building their self-worth outside of how they look is a protective factor that can reduce negative risk factors like body dissatisfaction, decreasing the probability of developing an eating disorder.

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