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Prevention of Eating Disorders

Bridget Engel, Psy.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

As most eating disorders start in the teen years, parents have the best shot at helping to prevent them from happening. Many things can be done to prevent the development of eating disorders. One approach involves providing education via the Internet and/or in person training to doctors, schools, clergy and sports organizations. By teaching adults to be aware of the most vulnerable individuals and the symptoms, eating disorders can be caught early and treated.

Educating both male and female children about healthy eating and body image is also an important prevention task. Health classes in school should teach children about different body types, nutrition, the importance of exercise, recognizing hunger and the dangers of dieting.

Children need to be taught about critical thinking. This includes learning how to recognize when media images are unrealistically perfect and how to not use those images as comparisons for themselves. Teaching strategies to reject peer pressure to give into the idea of trying to be thin and perfect might help too.

In addition, parents can be big supporters in building healthy body images, self-esteem and lifestyles for their children. One of the most important things that parents can do is be strong role models for their children. They should demonstrate what a balanced and healthy adult looks like. They can model eating a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables, exercising in moderation, and participating in fun family activities. This should be done even if the parents are self-conscious of their weight, abilities, or appearance. Parents should avoid criticizing their own body, especially in front of children.

It's important to encourage children to be involved in sports and other activities that build self-esteem and promote healthy physical activity. Actively teach children how to make healthy food choices. Plan and eat meals together. In addition, compliment kids - a lot. Praise them for their strengths, their talents, and their efforts. Provide kids with lots of physical affection and let them know that you love them for who they are. Allow lots of opportunities for children to talk about their insecurities, their body image, and their efforts to fit in. Educate them about the unrealistic messages in the media, and help them understand that thinness does not equal happiness. Limit the number of hours in front of the television or on the computer. Limit access to junk food and fast food. Avoid giving food for rewards. And most importantly, do not allow your teenagers to diet without your oversight or that of a doctor or dietician. Diets should be justified, reasonable, and well-balanced.

Many parents struggle with how to teach children healthy eating habits when there is a great deal of junk foods available to their kids. For example, research conducted in 2003 found that children who were excessively restricted from junk food at home responded by sneaking treats or eating when they were not necessarily hungry. These are both early behaviors to eating disorders. However, parents also find that if they don't establish restrictions, their children become unhealthy, obese, and unhappy with their body image. Striking a balance based on family lifestyle and the personality of the children seems to be key to actively teaching children how to make healthy choices, eat junk food in moderation, recognize when they are full, and include exercise into their life.

Try encouraging school leaders to take junk food and soda machines out of schools. Speak up for purchasing books for the school library about healthy nutrition and exercise. Write to political leaders about the importance of educating children about the dangers of eating disorders and the need to spend money for the cause. Write letters to media and modeling companies encouraging them to find ways to contribute to healthy lifestyles by presenting more realistic images. Shop at stores that have a range of clothing sizes for varying body types. Challenge people who make negative comments about weight or look at others as objects.

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