Everywhere we look these days we hear news about the nation’s challenge with overweight and obese children. First Lady Michelle Obama, with her Let’s Move! Campaign, has made raising healthier children and reducing childhood obesity her personal mission. Every one of us must take steps to create an environment for balancing foods coming in with the calories we spend at work and play. However, attention to healthy bodies must be expressed in careful messages to our youth and in conversations with adults, too, lest we send children in the wrong direction and confuse their thinking and judgment about what is positive body shape and size.
During the month of February, we recognize National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Eating disorders encompass anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorders. Some include being overweight or obese in defining eating disorders, but being overweight does not automatically mean you have an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorders Organization, as many as 10 million females and one million males are struggling with anorexia (self-starvation and excessive weight loss) or bulimia (binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or excessive laxative use). Millions more have a binge eating disorder.
Preoccupation with weight, body shape and dieting are risk factors for the development of eating disorders among adolescents and young adults. Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety or substance abuse are more common in girls and boys with eating disorders. Young people who have experienced sexual abuse also have an increased risk of disordered eating.
Individuals with eating disorders suffer with physical and emotional consequences. When the body is deprived of nourishment, systems fail. Common problems range from loss of menstrual period to constipation to bone loss, and in extreme cases, heart failure. Dental erosion, swollen salivary glands, and a bleeding esophagus can occur with self-induced vomiting. Abuse of laxatives can cause long-lasting bowel problems. People with eating disorders have more difficulties with relationships, financial security and job performance. The personal costs are great.
Treatment involves a multidisciplinary approach including medical attention, psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and nutrition counseling. It can take place in the hospital or in an out-patient setting. There are many programs to help those who suffer from eating disorders. Speak to your child’s pediatrician if you suspect an eating disorder is affecting your son’s or daughter’s health. The Multi-service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) can also help you find providers in your area.
Most adults, whether parents, teachers, coaches or health care providers, can take steps in our everyday lives to help prevent eating disorders in our children. The National Association of Eating Disorders publishes 50 ways to lose the 3D’s: dieting, drive for thinness, and body dissatisfaction. Here are some of my favorites, but there are lots of good ideas to choose from.
- Help children accept and enjoy their bodies and enjoy physical activity.
- Don’t use food as a reward or punishment. It sets up food as a potential weapon for control.
- Encourage eating in response to body hunger.
- Encourage balanced eating of a variety of food in moderation.
- Convey to children that their weight and appearance are not the most critical aspects of their identity and self-worth.
- Don’t constantly criticize your own shape. (“I’m so fat, —I’ve got to lose weight.”) Such self-criticism implies that appearance is more important than character.
- Don’t equate food with positive or negative behavior. The dieting parent who said she was “good “ today because she didn’t “eat much” implies that eating is bad, and that avoiding food is good. Similarly, “don’t eat that, it will make you fat” implies that being fat makes one unlikeable.
- Notice often and in a complimentary way how varied people are – how they come in all colors, shapes and sizes.
- Become a critical consumer of the media—pay attention to and openly challenge media messages. Talk with your children about the pressures they see, hear and feel to diet and “look good.”
- Build self esteem. The most important gift adults can give children is self-esteem. When adults show children that they value and love them unconditionally children can withstand the perils of childhood and adolescence with fewer scars and traumas. Self-esteem is a universal vaccine that can immunize a youngster from eating problems, body image distortion, exercise abuse, and many other problems.
Isn’t it interesting that many of these suggestions that might help prevent an eating disorder in a young person may also prevent a child from becoming overweight?
Janine Clifford-Murphy is a registered dietitian with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and holds a license in nutrition from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For more than 25 years she has been providing medical nutrition therapy to a wide variety of individuals and groups. She has worked with men and women with eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and bulimia. She also helps people with weight control, diabetes, heart disease, and digestive health issues. She holds a Master of Science degree in foods and nutrition from Framingham State College and a bachelor of science in biology from the College of the Holy Cross. Her mission is to help people understand the connections between food and health and to share the joy of shopping, preparing, and consuming great-tasting, healthy food.