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.
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.
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.
If you are a Highly Sensitive Person, and you know it, clap your hands. (To find out if you are an HSP, click here to take the questionnaire.) The amazing and powerful characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) ARE celebration – worthy.
Why? Because your nervous system is highly attuned and your perception is heightened. Your senses are turbocharged simply by nature. You are compassionate, intense, and thoughtful because you were born with a unique system that processes stimulation deeply.
You are among the 15% of the population born with the trait of High Sensitivity.
And, you are in great company! Many famous creative people, from artists (e.g. Vincent van Gogh) to musicians (e.g. Mozart, Drake, Celine Dion, and Bruce Springsteen) and poets (ee cummings; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost) are considered Highly Sensitive People. You have a natural gift with language.
How unfortunately that the amazing and powerful characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person are often not recognized, let alone celebrated. Even by HSPs!
Sadly, many Highly Sensitive People do not even know they are Highly Sensitive People. Instead, HSPs think of themselves as “too sensitive”, “too emotional”, or too something else (that’s undesirable).
By understanding the characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person with the acronym “DOES”, you can more easily recognize and celebrate being/knowing one.
- D stands for Depth of processing.
Highly Sensitive People tend to think a lot and at a deep level. You’re reflective and take longer to make decisions.
HSPs are “intense” and feel feelings deeply. As children, you may have been told you are an ‘old soul’ or ‘so mature for your age’.
- O stands for Over arousal.
Highly Sensitive People notice a lot – people’s feelings (even if unexpressed), features in the environment (e.g. clutter; air temperature), and internal experiences (such as low blood sugar).
This is the hardest feature to manage, especially if you don’t take time to recharge your batteries.
- E stands for Empathy/Emotion responsiveness.
Highly Sensitive People have strong emotional responses to all kinds of situations. For example, you’re highly attuned to others’ feelings and can sense others’ ‘vibes’.
You are deeply moved by nature, music, and the arts. And disturbed by violence, injustice, and cruelty.
- S stands for Sensory specific sensitivity.
HSPs are more attuned to sights, sounds, smells, and tactile features of the environment.
For instance, you’re more easily affected by bright lights, scratchy wool fabric, and sirens.
But also by sunrises, the breeze, and birds chirping.
The most common reaction to learning about “DOES” as an HSP is something like, “I never knew this was a thing. I thought it was just me.”
Most Highly Sensitive People have been criticized for being “too sensitive” or told that sensitivity is a weakness or flaw. The literal opposite is true; the powerful and amazing the characteristics of being a Highly Sensitive Person are a strength, a gift.
Understanding the trait of High Sensitivity is like hitting ‘refresh’ on the keyboard. Or like switching to High Definition television.
And with that welcome, comes a deep exhalation. Why? Because you spend less time defending your sensitivity – and more time enjoying the benefits.
Let’s return to the gifts of “DOES” and the talents you may not recognize you have.
Depth of Processing:
As a Highly Sensitive Person, your inner world is fulfilling, alive and rich. Orgasmic even.
Deep thinking is an amazing quality of a Highly Sensitive Person’s wiring. You ponder and seek eternal truths, such as love, connection, meaning, justice, and peace.
Every HSP has different strengths, though — you may have great attention-to-detail, be creative, or disciplined. When you finally admit that you are more sensitive than others, you can spend less time trying not to be sensitive and more time making the most of the gifts of being sensitive.
Computer simulation studies suggest that HSPs, who take time to notice all cues before make a decision, usually come out ahead, despite the disadvantage of potential overstimulation.
Heightened empathy provides a deep understanding of relationships and of other people’s feelings and thoughts. Hence, HSPs make phenomenal therapists, physicians, and other healers. Noticing subtle changes in body language, tone, and facial expression comes naturally. Your attunement and ability to put yourself in others’ shoes helps people feel understood and supported.
You notice emotional undercurrents that other people are completely oblivious to. Your antennae are just naturally on alert.
Plus, you’re awed by nature, art, music, literature. Soft warm breezes by the ocean, the sea’s many shades of blue, and sunlight shimmering on the water carry you to a different dimension.
You FEEL the beauty of life in every cell of your body.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity:
HSPs naturally notice details that others often miss. This type of attunement provides an evolutionary advantage and has prevented the human race from becoming extinct! Wow. Talk about powerful and amazing characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Person!
Let’s make this super concrete. A Highly Sensitive Person would be the one in the tribe to identify that the rustle in the bushes is a hungry animal ready to attack! Or that a change in barometric pressure means a storm is brewing. Or that those pretty berries don’t smell quite right and are unsafe to eat.
Thank you, Highly Sensitive Person ancestors for keeping our species alive!
So, You, Highly Sensitive Person, are a healer, a visionary, a seeker who marvels at the wonders of the world. Your creativity and intuition add depth to humanity.
But that is not all; you’re captivated by the beauty and mystery of the Universe. Own your gift and cherish its exquisite magical powers. The world needs more of what Highly Sensitive People naturally offer.
Embrace your sensitivity!
Because when you honor the amazing and powerful characteristics of being a Highly Sensitive Person, the Universe smiles. And we ALL benefit.
People feel heard, seen, and understood when you allow yourself to be you. And what better gift can anyone give to the world?
I enjoy working with other people who are also Highly Sensitive. Please contact me if you would like to learn more.
If you have a problem with your shoulder, heart, or other body part, you probably seek medical care. Or at least know you could or should. But what if the problem is your body image, i.e. your relationship with your body? How do you know if body image therapy is right for you?
Body Image concerns of varying degrees are more often the norm than not, thanks to diet culture and unattainable beauty standards, both historically and cross culturally. Pressure to have a perfect body, as defined by societal standards, has no expiration date. The current equation is something like thinnish and tone body = attractive = worthy.
Especially for girls and women.
Because body image concerns are so common, how to know if body image therapy is right for you can be tricky.
How common are body image problems? By age 6, girls in particular begin to show concerns about their own weight, and 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.
Think about that. Girls worrying about their weight at age 6.
And it only gets more intense from there. So much for playing hopscotch without a care in the world.
As girls age, the statistics do not become more encouraging. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
Even for women in their 60s through 90s, body image is often the number one body concern. Women in their mid life and senior years feeling unhappy in their body is a callosal shame.
Body image concerns affect us all.
While all ages, genders, and cultures are equally at risk for body image issues, the triggers and pressures vary.
In Western culture, girls feel pressure from the societal appearance-ideal. (Remember, slim and tone = attractive = worthy.) Boys are more often faced with social pressures to be lean and muscular.
So body image issues are common. But still, how do you know if body image therapy is right for you? Even if asking for a friend? 🙂
See if you can related to any of these concrete examples of body image problems.
You look in a full length mirror, and your good mood disappears. Maybe you are naked after just having had a relaxing shower. Or fully clothed and doing a final check before heading out the door.
You automatically start attacking yourself in harsher terms than a bully ever would.
The harsh self talk may be so automatic that you don’t even recognize you are doing it.
Real life examples of critical thinking when looking at your own reflection in the mirror include: “My stomach is gross.” “If only I could lose ”x” number of pounds, I would be happy.” or even “I wish I could cut off these disgusting mounds of fat.”
Unfortunately, most women and girls can completely relate to negative body image thoughts.
Maybe you can relate too. Or perhaps you can relate so personally that poor body image seems like no big deal because of how normal it seems to think this way.
Negative body image is a big deal.
One way it is a big deal is the dislike of your body and/or features causes you to resort to extreme and/or chronic measures to ‘fix’ the problem. And you might not even know or care that the ‘fix- it’ attempts are risky. And often futile.
Intentional weight loss efforts are not effective in the medium or long term. Plastic surgery is not a magic bullet and carries many risks.
Both perpetuate ongoing patterns of futility for a lifetime. More often than not, they are ineffective. Especially in the medium to long term.
If you invest time, money, and who knows what else in an attempt to be comfortable in your body, you expect the method to work.
When the method does not work, you blame yourself and commit to trying again or stepping it up a notch. Wash, rinse, repeat. Days, weeks, years pass you by.
Another reason a terrible relationship with your body is a big deal is because it keeps your focus on trying day after day after day to improve on something (your body) that does not need improvement.
That energy of yours could be channeled toward soooooo many other pursuits. Or even in just being, self-compassionately, in the here and now, with what is.
Your body is not the problem.
What is the problem, if it is not your body? The actual problem is diet culture, healthism, weight stigma, and cultural standards of beauty.
We can’t change Diet Culture or societal standards overnight.
Instead, we can improve our relationship with our body, teach body respect to children, and over time cultural standards will change.
Body image therapy is part of the solution.
Back to the question of how to know if body image therapy is right for you?
Most people know what it is like to want to change something about their body. Maybe for example hair color (changeable). Or height (not changeable). The dislike does not cause significant anxiety and has little impact on your sense of who you are.
If you accept your body without dwelling on perceived flaws you generally have a positive body image. Body image therapy could be helpful for you to fine tune your body satisfaction. Or even to help spread the word through your own actions of the benefits of feeling neutral or positive in your own body. (Remember the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally? You could be the Meg Ryan character demonstrating the magic of positive body image. Onlookers will gasp, “I will have what she is having!” )
Because negative body image is more common than not, therapy for body image is even that much more impactful.
So, can you turn negative body image into positive body image?
The short answer: Yes!
The long answer: “Yes, and”. The ‘and’ refers to the simultaneous effort at eliminating weight stigma, diversifying standards of beauty, standing up to Diet Culture, and striving toward your own body neutrality. And eventually glorious embodiment. That is, actually feeling peaceful, at home, and dare I say even ecstatic in the body you have.
After all, it is where you will live your entire life.
And your body is THE instrument for sensory experiences.
The sight of a vast ocean or mountain range, the smell of cinnamon, the sound of a beautiful melody, or the taste of your favorite scrumptious food, can only be accessed through your body. Thinking of and treating your body as an instrument for pleasure rather than as an object to criticize is an example of what happens in body image therapy.
Feeling neutral and even satisfied in your body is your birthright.
If not now, when?
One of my missions in life is to encourage people to improve their relationship with their body, whatever the size or shape. I know it is possible. The amount of energy and creativity that body image therapy frees up is astonishing.
There is nothing wrong or unnatural about feeling anxious or depressed. If you are a human being, you inevitably experience anxiety and depression. That is life.
Anxiety and depression have physical symptoms associated with them. Knowing how to keep the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression from derailing your life is an important part of well being. And of life in general. Otherwise, symptoms can take over, and your quality of life will suffer. How? Socially, interpersonally, health-wise, and in all other ways you can think of.
Let’s take a closer look at anxiety, starting with a definition.
Anxiety occurs when you feel nervous or stressed about something.
Maybe before an exam, or on a first date, you notice feeling slightly agitated or restless? Or worried, and/or a preference to avoid whatever is stressing you out?
Feeling anxious can be uncomfortable, even to the point you may wonder why the feeling exists.
Did you know that you, like everyone else, are wired to experience anxiety as a protective mechanism?
Anxiety is protective? Say what?
Anxiety is adaptive when facing challenges. So, we don’t want to get rid of it completely.
Back in the day of our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors, feeling anxious when lions approached was a good thing. Our ancestors’ anxiety helped them to fight off the animals or run for safety.
Anxiety kept them alive by activating the fight-or-flight mode. The same mechanism remains today as part of our brain. It prepares you for action and safety. In many cases, the fight or flight activation is a ‘false alarm’, because there are no lions or their equivalent chasing you. The threat in the present is more benign, like a first date or arriving late to an appointment. Much less is usually at stake than being attacked by a ferocious beast, but your nervous system doesn’t distinguish.
Without the safety mechanism of anxiety, humans would not have survived.
So, you can actually thank your anxiety for the evolution of our species.
Despite the benefits of anxiety, uncomfortable physical symptoms often occur in the body when you feel anxious.
Remember, anxiety is normal and something most of us experience. The severity can vary, from mild to severe.
Anxiety is considered a disorder depending on how long it lasts, how much distress it causes, or if it interferes with your life in other ways.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Nausea or stomach pain
- Rapid heart rate (maybe even feeling your heart pound)
- Shortness of breath (to the point where it may be hard to breathe)
- Muscle tension
There are about ten different categories of anxiety, many of which have overlapping physical symptoms. Examples of the categories include Phobias, Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, professional help may be the best next step.
Here is some good news: You can take steps on your own to manage your anxiety and physical symptoms.
Five of the best ways to keep the physical symptoms of anxiety from ruining your life include:
- Physical activity, be it formal exercise, walking in the park, dancing in your room to favorite music, or some other movement – it all counts as being physically active.
- Find time to be outside every day.
- Aim to avoid or at least limit alcohol and caffeine. Avoid nicotine. All worsen anxiety.
- Make sleep a priority. Anxiety and sleep problems go hand in hand. Getting enough sleep is important; it may reduce anxiety AND can help you cope with symptoms if you do become anxious.
- Relaxation techniques actually work. There are many different types. Discover what works for you. Maybe yoga? Guided meditation? Pick something that calms you and be sure it does not add to anxiety.
Up next is depression. Let’s define it and describe what it feels like to be depressed.
Feeling sad is normal. We all have losses and challenges, and sadness is a natural emotion.
Most everyone knows what feeling ‘off’ is like. Or feeling blue, sad, down in the dumps. Having these feelings on occasion is completely normal. With more moderate depression you may feel joyless and disinterested in what you usually like to do. Low energy and a bad mood can accompany depression too.
As with anxiety, depression levels range in severity from mild to severe.
Depending on how long depression lasts, how much distress it causes, and how it interferes in your life, you may have more than ‘just’ feelings of depression.
Feeling helpless and hopeless can also be a part of depression. This can become so central that suicidal thoughts may occur. (If this happens, call your local emergency room asap. The Samaritans are also available to talk to for support. ) Seeking professional help from a therapist and possibly a medication prescriber (aka a psychopharmacologist) is important, so that the symptoms do not become debilitating or lead to thoughts of suicide.
Physical symptoms of depression can include:
- Aches and pains, such as back or joint pain
- Sleep problems, such as insomnia or awakening a lot during the night
- Changes in appetite
- Slowed speed and movement, or agitated speech and movement
- Digestive problems
Fortunately, there are tried and true ways to keep physical symptoms of depression from ruining your life.
The same strategies to keep physical symptoms of anxiety from derailing your life also apply to depression. These include: physical activity, time spent outside, limiting or avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, prioritizing sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques.
Two additional recommendations for improving physical symptoms of depression are less well known. They target the sense of meaninglessness and lack of pleasure that can accompany depression.
- Engage in daily activities for mastery.
The bar for what is considered mastery may be low. That is ok. Even if making your bed is a mastery activity, great! The point is to do something that you really don’t feel like doing because of depression, and give yourself credit for having done it. Voila! Mastery.
This type of activity can be helpful to offset feeling like you can’t do anything right, or that you are too glum to do anything.
2. Engage in daily activities for pleasure.
Pleasure is often absent when feeling depressed. Even if it feels like just going through the motions, purposely plan and do something each day that brings you some sense of joy, pleasure, or peace. Examples include using your favorite body cream after showering, cuddling with your pet, or lighting a candle and listening to your favorite music.
There is a lot you can do to help yourself keep the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression from ruining your life. They are all forms of self care.
Unfortunately, self care has gotten a bad rap. Self care, ironically, is essential to well being. Rather than self indulgent, self-care helps to keep the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression away.
Self care each day may just keep anxiety and depression away!
Even if it doesn’t, self care will help you manage the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression. There is no down side to self care!
In my private practice I teach teens and adults how to navigate anxiety and depression. Please contact me if you would like more information.