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The seeds of disordered eating - and what parents can do

Published on: December 30, 2013

Is she too large?
Is she too large?

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

As a psychologist who has treated eating disorders for thirty years, I have become increasingly interested in prevention. There are subtle ways that parents inadvertently escort their children into some bad habits of dieting, focusing on looks and emphasizing warped values.



 Here are some classic baddies (with explanations) that contribute to a child’s vulnerability regarding body image difficulties, problematic dieting and eating disorders:

“You look so great since you lost all that weight!”

(This declaration means you look bad when you gain it back, which is more likely than not, if you had quick and substantial weight loss. Feeling badly about the failure to maintain a weight loss can result in more extreme dieting, and a “ yo-yo” pattern may ensue—sometimes for life).

“If you feel so bad about your body, why don’t you just lose some weight?”

(“JUST” is the tricky word here. If the challenge of losing weight was as simple as implied by the minimizing word “just”, then the obesity crisis would be solved).

“Honey, if you want to lose weight, you shouldn’t have had that second helping of mashed potatoes…or the butter.”

(As much as parents may be correct and possess good intentions, the impact of many of these kinds of messages can be shame and over-eating as a backfire effect).

And one of the worst…

“We’re going to cut out carbs and fats from our diet from now on, so we can be on a healthy eating campaign.”

(“Healthy?” Many parents disguise restrictive dieting campaigns as noble and virtuous quests to cut out “bad” foods, which are really just the latest dieting fads. Demonizing certain food groups upsets the balance that contributes to genuine good health, satiety and successful weight management).

A while ago, I gave a keynote speech at a pediatric conference which was entitled “It all started when: Seeds of disordered eating.” I was surprised at the degree to which pediatricians were relieved to hear me address the insidious ways that bad eating patterns sneak into the lives of children. By the time doctors and other health care practitioners are consulted by parents, a pattern may have developed that is extremely hard to reverse.

Good advice is all over the web for parents. The hard part is following it with action. Resistance to eating disorder risks includes balanced meals, physical fitness without excess, good role modeling by parents, valuing aspects of our daughters that do not relate to appearance, supporting their strong “voices”, and discouraging an obsession with the “perfect girl prototype” (e.g. thin, beautiful, accommodating, always good, and never angry). “Perfect” doesn’t exist and sets up kids with compulsive tendencies for disaster. The most well-intentioned parents can end up clueless in their unwitting collaboration with our media-saturated culture to support dieting, perfectionism, an appearance preoccupation, and superficial values.

It isn’t easy. My daughter probably got tired of hearing me talk about the multi-billion dollar dieting industry, the manikins that typify less than 1% of women, studies that documented increased depressive feelings after reading fashion magazines, and how scraping the cheese off pizza was a sin. But with peers, media and the surrounding culture idealizing the values that contribute to our crazy eating patterns, who else do kids have other than their parents and a few other adults to counter what’s all around them?

The book I recommend for the parents that consult with me about eating problems with their children is by Ellen Satter. Knowledge, wisdom and concerted effort can help you prevent disordered eating among your children. It’s a worthy mission.

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