Preventing Childhood Eating Disorders and Food Anxiety
Childhood obesity is a hot topic in North America, but we should also be discussing the increasing rate of all eating disorders in school age children. Eating disorders such as compulsive eating, binge eating, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia make it harder for our children to experience academic, athletic, and social success. Disturbingly, researchers have found that early dieting puts children at risk for developing these disorders.
About 40% of 9 and 10 year old girls are trying to lose weight, according to a study in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. What frightens some researchers is that many of these girls aren’t even overweight. They are not dieting for health reasons, but because of dissatisfaction with their bodies. Of most concern to parents is that girls with poor body image are more likely to want to smoke, drink, and experiment with drugs and sex.
Much of these young girls’ preoccupation with shape and weight is blamed on the media’s continual exposure of very thin women. Genetics is also a factor. However, sometimes the words and actions of adults contribute to our children’s unhealthy food relationships.
Food is often used to reward and punish children. When used in this way, it becomes a potential weapon for control. As we attach extra meaning to food, our perception of it is altered, increasing our collective food anxiety. Some examples of how we attach extra meaning to food include:
“Do your homework and you can have some ice cream.” “If you go to bed without a fuss, I’ll bring you a hamburger and fries for lunch at school.” (Reward)
“Unless you clean that plate, you can’t watch any TV tonight!” “You were so bad at the store that you will have to eat all your green beans!” (Punishment)
“You’re such a good girl. You’ve cleaned your plate!” “My son is not a picky eater. He eats everything in sight.” “She’s so thin; she must be a healthy eater”. (Compliment)
“I know the kids have been picking on you. Don’t be upset. We’ll get pizza and popcorn tonight and watch your favorite TV show.” (Consolation)
“There’s nothing to do. Let’s go out for ice cream.” (Boredom)
As children are repeatedly exposed to these messages, they eat when their feelings tell them to eat, or they don’t eat in an effort to control their environment. They begin to lose the ability to eat to satisfy hunger.
10 Things Parents Can Do to Prevent Eating Disorders
- Be good role models. Consider your thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors toward your own body.
- Make family mealtime a priority. Support and demonstrate healthy eating habits at home and at school. Parents have the greatest influence on a child’s eating behavior. Encourage balanced eating of a variety of foods in moderation.
- Do not talk or behave as if you are constantly dieting.
- Don’t use food as a reward or punishment. Reward children with attention and family activities. Punish by taking away privileges.
- Don’t equate food with positive or negative behavior. When a parent says, “I was good today because I didn’t eat much,” it implies that eating is bad.
- Downplay appearance. Examine your dreams and goals for your children. Are you over-emphasizing beauty and body shape?
- Cultivate talents to boost your child’s self-esteem and self-respect.
- Role play with your child about how to deal with peer pressure.
- Encourage eating in response to body hunger.
- Encourage exercise for fun and health, not as a way to burn calories.
If you are interested in learning more about Annalise Roberts & Claudia Pillow, they are food writers & cookbook authors with www.foodphilosopher.com