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Creating a Healthy Environment to Reduce the Risk of Eating Disorders


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At SAGE, we believe that health is all about balance. However, our society glorifies the opposite of balance—extreme thinness through restriction, exercise, and any other means necessary. Magazine editors, Hollywood directors, media moguls, and clothing designers equate thinness with health, attractiveness, self-control, moral goodness, and happiness. This false equation leads many kids who are already vulnerable to turn to food as a means of control over their lives. Is it any wonder that eating disorders are on the rise?

These serious but treatable illnesses have physical and psychiatric components with chronic, potentially life-threatening medical consequences that can affect many aspects of life, including school. Eating disorders are characterized by obsession with food, body image, and weight. They usually develop in adolescence, but all ages, sexes, genders and orientations, races, ethnicities, and nationalities can be affected.

An eating disorder in an individual is often indicated by five general factors: behavioral change or rigidity, preoccupation with food or calories, social isolation, and an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that something’s wrong. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides this list of specific symptoms—but remember, eating disorders must be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. You cannot diagnose one yourself. If you suspect that your child has an eating disorder, get him or her to a doctor or counselor. Those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol can avoid the addictive substance, but those with disordered eating habits can’t avoid food. Your child will need a treatment plan and professional support moving forward.

Still, there’s good news. Even if you’re not a doctor, you can reduce the risk of eating disorders in the young people around you. Studies show that adults play a major role in influencing kids’ food preferences, eating habits, portion sizes, nutritional intake, and attitudes about food. In fact, of all the forces that influence adolescent health-risk behavior, the most critical are family and school.

If you think you’re ready to create a healthy environment that reduces the risk of eating disorders, first take a moment to ask yourself: “Am I contributing to a negative culture around food and weight?” Examine your own attitudes about body image, physical appearance, health, and exercise. Establish a healthy attitude yourself by focusing on things your body can do for you and others—for instance, volunteer, read, or take up a new hobby. If you find that you’re overly preoccupied with food, weight, or dieting, get help for yourself.

If you’ve evaluated your own perceptions and are confident that you’re only sending positive messages, work to create a healthy environment for your kids with the following tips. Think of it as a preemptive strike against eating disorders.

  • Help your kids form healthy relationships with food by emphasizing variety, balance, and moderation.

    • Offer a variety of ingredients, cuisines, and whole-food options.
    • Give adequate time for meals and encourage sit-down meals.
    • Don’t identify foods as “bad.” Instead, discuss balance and moderation.
    • Don’t restrict or require foods. Doing so increases the likelihood that your kid will do the exact opposite when you’re not around.
    • Promote an understanding of food groups or macronutrients (rather than counting calories) to encourage balanced eating behaviors without increasing the risk of eating disorders.

  • Take the focus off food.

    • Contextualize food with culture and opportunities for socialization (e.g., holiday traditions, mealtime conversations) so it’s not associated solely with health and appearance.
    • Carve out time to garden and cook with your kids.

  • Offer positive nutrition messaging.

    • “Eat your colors.”
    • “Variety, balance, and moderation.”
    • “Food is fuel.”

  • Cultivate emotional strength and self-confidence.

    • Teach “coping and life skills,” such as self-esteem, problem solving, decision making, assertiveness, communication, healthy relationships, and stress management.
    • Encourage critical media consumption—challenge media messages that thin people are more deserving of love, fame, or success.
    • Don’t engage in fat talk, food shaming, diet talk, or calorie-counting—even about yourself.
    • Don’t equate food with positive or negative behavior (e.g., saying you were “good” today because you didn’t eat that donut, punishing “bad” behavior by taking away dessert).

External Sources
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms https://www1.maine.gov/education/sh/eatingdisorders/bodywise.pdf

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