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Prevention of Eating Disorders

Bridget Engel, Psy.D., Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

As most eating disorders start in adolescence, parents have the best shot at helping to prevent them from occurring. Fortunately, many things can be done to prevent the development of eating disorders. One prevention approach involves providing education via the Internet and/or in person training to physicians, 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 primary 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 also need to be taught about critical thinking - how to recognize when media images are unrealistically perfect and to not use those images as comparisons for themselves. Teaching kids strategies to reject peer pressure to succumb to the lure of trying to be thin and perfect might help too.

In addition, parents can be big advocates in building healthy body images, self-esteem and lifestyles for their children. In fact, one of the most important things that parents can do is be strong role models for their children - demonstrating what a balanced and healthy adult looks like. Model eating a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables, exercising in moderation, and participating in fun family activities, even if you are self-conscious of your weight, your abilities, or your appearance. Avoid criticizing your own body, especially in front of your 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 your 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 supplied in endless number by 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, and limit access to junk food and fast food as well. Avoid giving food for rewards. And most importantly, do not allow your teenagers to diet without your oversight or that of a physician 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 bounty 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, both precursor 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 temperament of the children seems to be key by actively teaching children how to make healthy choices, eat junk food in moderation, recognize when they are satiated, and incorporate exercise into their life.

Try encouraging school administrators to take junk food and soda machines out of our schools. Advocate for purchasing books for the school library about healthy nutrition and exercise. Write to politicians about the importance of educating children about the dangers of eating disorders and the need to allocate some health monies 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 objectify others.