Two parents, their son and daughter on standing on a beach overlooking the ocean, representing the importance of recognizing early warning signs of eating disorders

Dieting triggers Eating Disorders. You and your family live in diet culture. Ut oh. How then as parents can you prevent eating disorders? What are some of the things for parents to know about the prevention of eating disorders?

Education for parents about the prevention of eating disorders makes a difference in the life of every family member. There is lots of hope!

Here are ten things for you as parents to know about the prevention of eating disorders.

1. The most common way Eating Disorders start is as an “innocent” diet. (Which is an oxymoron.)

More than 40 BILLION dollars is spent each year on dieting. From an early age, children receive the message that being in a socially acceptable size body (e.g. thin) is essential for happiness. The diet industry, fitness industry, and even the medical field promote unhealthy weight practices (aka dieting), often disguised as ‘healthy lifestyle’ or ‘clean eating’.

Why is this relevant?

The most fundamental way to prevent Eating Disorders is through teaching and modelling nondieting. Dieting is not innocent; it is a significant risk factor for Eating Disorders. And, it promotes mistrust of the body, as well as weight cycling and preoccupation. Dieting interferes with quality of life and is not sustainable. Research since 1959 has demonstrated the futility of dieting over and over and over again. And the dangers associated with it.

I discourage dieting, and so should you. It can lead to an Eating Disorder, especially for susceptible children.

So what can you do instead?

Teach your children how to trust their body, appetite, and needs. Be aware of what you are modelling for them, through your words and actions.

A child delighting in sitting at a table about to eat a delicious looking donut.

For example, eliminate (ideally) or limit your purchase of diet/low calorie foods. Do not speak disparagingly about your or someone else’s body size or weight. Educate your children that no food is “good” or “bad”. Food is food and does not have a moral quality.

Emphasize Intuitive Eating, movement for pleasure, and your child’s many awesome qualities beyond appearance.

Encourage your children to be in tune with the physical sensations in their body. Teach them the skills of Interoceptive Awareness. This education will also help them to regulate their feelings.

One of the best resource for parents of infants all the way through adolescents is Ellyn Satter’s website. It is a rich source of gold standard information for families on eating competence, feeding dynamics and division of responsibility.

2. Learn the basics about eating disorders.

There are tons of free resources online. Prevention is easier if you know the facts. Recognize too that Eating Disorders include more than the two most commonly known (Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa), and sub threshold forms of Eating Disorders are serious too.

Here are more of the basics:

a. Genetics increase risk. If a biological relative has/had Anorexia, for example, risk increases eleven times. However, an eating disorder is not inevitable. Genes predispose but are not a slam dunk.

b. Eating Disorders rarely get better on their own. With proper treatment, though, they are completely treatable.

c. Eating Disorders occur among boys/men, people who are transgender, and girls/women. People of color, of any socioeconomic status or religion, and of all ages develop Eating Disorders.

Two tween girls are on a hammock enjoying nature.

3. Teach media literacy. Especially with social media. Doing so will buffer against appearance based comparing.

Research studies confirm what you likely already know: Social media usage can promote body dissatisfaction, depending on the images you are looking at. The number of likes you get on your posts also factors into how you feel after spending time on Instagram. More often than not, you feel worse about yourself after spending just ten minutes scrolling on Instagram.

4. Be a role model in as many ways as possible. Both on the inside and outside.

Live your life in a way that is aligned with your own values. When day to day choices are based on your own set of values, you are also instilling the values into your children’s life. Healthy values can be key in the prevention of eating disorders.

5. Teach and model self-compassion to your children.

Being self compassionate is similar to showing other people compassion. Self compassion means you accept imperfection. Life can be hard, filled with frustration, loss, mistakes, and limits. This is what it means to be human. Ups and downs in life are to be expected, and are what connect us as human beings. In this way self compassion strengthens resilience.

6. Eating Disorders are not caused by just one thing.

There are many genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors that combine and create the perfect storm. Eating disorders do tend to run in families. Exciting research in the last decade or so using brain imaging will probably provide additional guidelines for the treatment and prevention of eating disorders. Good news!

7. You can not tell if someone has an Eating Disorder by looking at them.

Someone with an Eating Disorder may appear “healthy” but be ill. In general, do not comment on people’s weight or food choices. And, never tell someone with an Eating Disorder they look “healthy.” To that person, “healthy” is code for “you look fat” or “you have gained weight.”

8. People with Eating Disorders are at higher risk for suicide, medical complications, and psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety. Sometimes they also have substance use problems. Including diet pill abuse.

Eating Disorders can be fatal.

9. Eating Disorders are not a phase, choice, or resolved by a mandate to ‘just eat’.

They are legitimate, serious conditions that require specialized treatment. The typical approach is to have a medical doctor, registered dietician, and a psychologist working as part of a team with you and your child. Sometimes a family therapist is also involved.

10. Parents are not to blame when a child develops an Eating Disorder.

The reasons for why the Disorder developed vary for each person. Further, there is no one set of guidelines for parents to absolutely guarantee the prevention of an eating disorder in their child.

The great news is that there are things every family member can do to create a recovery-promoting environment.

Including parents in the prevention of eating disorders and in the treatment process is especially important.

Eating disorder prevention is critical. As parents, you may not be able to prevent your children from developing an eating disorder. However, please recognize that there are many action steps you can take to protect your kids. And to stack the deck more favorably.

Educate yourself and be mindful of what you are teaching your children.

Your children soak in your comments and behaviors, everyday. You have agency over the messages your children absorb. Use that to your and their advantage.

I have specialized in the prevention and treatment of Eating Disorders for over 20 years and have seen the Disorder’s toll on a family. Full recovery is available to anyone suffering from an Eating Disorder, and for their family too.

Leave a Comment