Research reports that two out of four young people have unhealthy ideas about eating, dieting and weight. With the alarming increase of eating disorders, dieting, and obesity among children as young as 5 and 6, it’s crucial these days for parents to proactively work to promote healthy eating and body image in their children.
It has been found that in households where mom talks about feeling fat, 81% of their teenage daughters said they felt fat too. Our girls, especially, are being easily confused and influenced when it comes to body image development. In a culture where young people are bombarded with skinny, glossy, and superficial images, parents can be a mirror reflecting understanding, reassurance, wisdom, and love that their children can look into with faith and not fear. Many factors influence whether an adolescent will develop a positive or negative body image. As a parent, you can learn to be supportive the next time your child says, “Mom, I feel fat or Mom, I hate my life,” and be ready with an answer by saying, “that sounds like an important feeling, tell me more.”
The Slenderizing Beauty Ideal
Everyday 56% of the women in the United States are on diets. We have a 30-billion-dollar-a-year diet industry. The historical view of the ideal female body has changed over the years and influenced this dieting America. Although many factors contribute to the changing body shape of girls, including better nutrition, earlier onset of puberty and other societal influences. The fact remains that regardless of the reason, the common trend over time points to a slenderizing standard of the female ideal.
With standards like this, it is no wonder that children are dissatisfied with their bodies.
When it came to looks – teens are most concerned about weight. A Teen People survey of 1000 teens, showed that 39% worried about weight. Between 2000 and 2001, cosmetic surgery on girls 18 and younger had increased by 22%.
Another study reported that after girls viewed pictures of models in fashion magazines:
69% reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of the perfect body shape and
47% reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
This study found that those who were frequent readers of fashion magazines were 2-3 times more likely than infrequent readers to start dieting to lose weight because of a magazine article.
What Are Eating Disorders?
Is it any wonder, then, that eating disorders affect 7 million women and 1 million men in the United States? Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. People with anorexia starve themselves to dangerously thin levels, at least 15% below their appropriate weight. People with bulimia binge uncontrollably on large amounts of food–sometimes thousands of calories at a time–and then purge the calories out of their bodies through vomiting, starving, excessive exercise, laxatives, or other methods. People with binge-eating disorder eat uncontrollably, but they do not purge the calories.
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (or EDNOS) is a new classification of disordered eating that falls between anorexia, binge eating and bulimia. Unfortunately, since this type of ‘sub-clinical’ disorder is often not life-threatening, there appears to be little research available on the topic. One of the goals at FINDINGbalance.com, the first national organization dedicated to helping those who struggle with ENDOS, is to begin collecting new information through input from their website visitors and other existing sources. Visit the http://www.FINDINGbalance.com website to take the “Weird Eater” quiz and take a closer look at how dieting habits can lead to disordered eating.
Anorexia Warning Signs for Adolescents & Adults:
• Loss of menstrual period
• Dieting obsessively when not overweight
• Claiming to feel “fat” when overweight is not a reality
• Preoccupation with food, calories, nutrition, and/or cooking
• Denial of hunger
• Excessive exercising, being overly active
• Frequent weighing
• Strange food-related behaviors
• Episodes of binge-eating
• 15% or more below normal body weight/rapid weight loss
• Slowness of thought/memory difficulties
• Hair loss
* In children any combination of these symptoms should be considered serious and an immediate evaluation by an eating disorder professional or physician is recommended.
Bulimia Warning Signs:
• Excessive concern about weight
• Strict dieting followed by eating binges
• Frequent overeating, especially when distressed
• Bingeing on high calorie, sweet foods
• Use of laxatives, diuretics, strict dieting, vigorous exercise, and/or vomiting to control weight
• Leaving for the bathroom after meals
• Being secretive about binges or vomiting
• Planning binges or opportunities to binge
• Feeling out of control
• Depressive moods
EDNOS Warning Signs:
• You’re always on a diet, always coming off a diet, or always getting ready to go on one again (chronic dieting).
• You categorize foods as ‘safe’ and ‘off limits’, but weigh within normal ranges and are not participating in bulimia.
• You eliminate entire food groups from your diet.
• You are obsessed with exercising but eat fairly regularly.
• You binge and/or purge occasionally, but not more than a few times a month.
• You skip social occasions because you feel fat, or because you are afraid of what’s being served, yet your weight is normal.
• You believe that everyone is as focused on your weight as you are.
• You refuse to eat regular meals, choosing instead to ‘nibble’ throughout the day on small portions of food (which usually leads to bingeing).
How Common Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are serious illnesses. The malnourishment of both anorexia and bulimia affects the body rapidly and can lead to hypoglycemia, pancreatitis, enlargement of the heart, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, permanent brain shrinkage with loss of memory and IQ, infertility, and osteoporosis. It is not uncommon for a teenage girl with anorexia to have the bones of an 80 year old woman. The condition is not reversible. Ultimately, approximately, 6% of people with anorexia and 1% with bulimia will die from their eating disorder.
According to Remuda Ranch, an inpatient eating disorder treatment center in Arizona, estimates indicate that 1/3 of American women and 15% of men will have an eating disorder or related problem at some time in their lives. Fifty years ago, eating disorders were practically unheard of. Research suggest a strong genetic component to eating disorders. People who are prone to perfectionism and low self-esteem may be most at risk.
In today’s world, the cultural pressures for young people to obtain and maintain super-thin bodies are extreme. In this environment, thinness readily becomes a way of dealing with many emotional issues. However, outcome studies have shown there is much hope for people with eating disorders. The good news is that approximately 75% of patients with eating disorders do recover.
How Can Parents Prevent Disordered Eating?
Parents can do much to spare their children a life-long struggle with eating and weight. One of the most important ways is to examine their own beliefs and prejudices as a parent about weight and appearance. Parents should communicate acceptance and respect for themselves and other people regardless of weight. This will reduce some of the pressure children may feel to change their bodies. Especially, discourage the idea that a particular diet or body size can reliably lead to happiness. Do not model or encourage dieting. Accept and talk about the fact that diets don’t work and the dangers of altering one’s body through dieting.
Tips For Healthy Eating
In our diet crazed culture, what really is healthy eating? Here are a few tips that will go a long way in feeding your family a balanced mealtime experience. For starters, teach your children to listen to their body — eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Remember balance means that most of the time you eat because you are hungry and use food as fuel for your body. But, it also means that sometimes you eat simply when the food appeals to you or when it is appropriate in a social setting (e.g., popcorn at the movies), allowing yourself to eat for enjoyment.
Try to eat different foods everyday, in other words, create an adventure for your taste buds. Aim to inspire your family to eat 3 meals and 1 to 3 snacks a day. The idea that snacking between meals is bad is a thing of the past. By teaching your kids to eat every 2 to 4 hours, they will prevent their body from getting overly hungry which could set them up to overeat later. Plus, the body uses the fuel from food very efficiently when smaller amounts of food is eaten more frequently throughout the day.
The bottom line: eat normally, exercise moderately, and let your body weigh what it wants. Yes, it will take courage and perseverance, but the rewards of knowing you are teaching your family how to eat for pleasure is a true legacy to leave.
DeVillera, Julia. GirlWise. Roseville, California: Prima Publishing; 2002.
Gaesser, Glenn. Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health. New York: Ballantine; 1996.
Hersh. Sharon A. “Mom, I feel fat!” Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press; 2001.
Hutchinson, Marcia. 200 Ways to Love the Body You Have. CA: Crossing Press; 1999.
Jacobs-Brumberg, Joan. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. NewYork: Random House; 1997.
Jantz, Gregory L. Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press; 2002.
Omichinski, Linda. Staying off the Diet Roller Coaster: Advicezone.com; 2000.
Rhodes, Constance. Life Inside the Thin Cage. Colorado Springs. Colorado: Waterbrook Press; 2003.
Quart, Alissa. Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books Group; 2003.
Tribole, Evelyn. Intuitive Eating: A Recovery Book for the Chronic Dieter. New York: St. Martin’s Press; 1995.
WEBSITES AND PROGRAMS
HUGS for Better Health website features resources on how to build a non-diet lifestyle. http://www.hugs.com
F.I.T (Future Identity of Teens) is a weekend conference for teenage girls to teach teens how to live healthful, balanced lives. Nationally-known speakers, drama skits, fashion shows, kick boxing, snacks, and give-aways are part of the all day workshop. [http://www.fitdecisions.org]
The US Department of Health and Human Services has sponsored, Girl Power!, a national public education campaign sponsored designed to provide positive messages, accurate health information, and support for 9- to 13-year-old girls. The website includes statistics, research, materials and information for both adolescents and adults. A free Girl Power! Kit can be ordered via the website.
This site, the National Women’s Health Information Center, is a project of the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. Navigate to “Body Image” section of the website and you will find the “Body Wise” handbook and additional information, educational material and additional resources for parents and a variety of professions.
by D. Burgard, PhD
Videos and workshops that teach young people how to develop a positive body image and have a healthy relationship with food. A new video (2002) Body Talk 2: It’s a New Language, is targeted at tweens (ages 8-11).
Gurze Books which include tapes and resources on disordered eating and related topics on body image and obesity.
The Healthy Weight Network features a journal and Francis Berg’s books, Children and Teens Afraid to Eat and other practical resources for educators and health professionals.
The Victorian Department of Human Services website has many resources including a summary of body image programs as well as a review of the research evaluating these programs. In addition, you will find a free Resource Planning Kit: “Shape: Body Image Program Planning Guide”.
Provides many programs, books and materials and references (two items offered are listed below).
Remuda Ranch is an eating disorder treatment center devoted to the unique needs of women and girls and integrate specialized therapies such as art, equine, body image, and movement program components as part of the recovery treatment.