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Written by:  Michele Ranard
Date: April 1, 2012

Seated on the floor with legs stretched out before her, my perfectly proportioned and petite 8-year-old niece recently gazed at her bare legs and sighed, "My thighs are fat!"

Eileen's son is 13 with washboard abs from swimming, but he asks his mother far too often for the number of calories on his dinner plate.

Eating disorders: on the rise

Such everyday scenarios reflect our children's growing sensitivity to body image and weight issues. The media is saturated with unrealistic and unattainable body shapes, and our children are more vulnerable than ever to such images. Unfortunately, the incidence of eating disturbances is increasing among children and teens across America. However, parents can play a major part in lowering the risk.

"If your child is saying things like 'I'm fat' or 'I'm going on a diet,' take it as seriously as you would if they came home from school and said 'I'm going to have a cigarette,' or 'I'm going out drinking,'" says Cindy Bulik, director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program in Chapel Hill.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports the onset of eating disorders usually takes place during adolescence, but even kindergartners can exhibit symptoms. So from an early age, parents should talk with children about healthy bodies and healthy eating.

"Parents can play an important role by making sure they help their children learn how to value everything about themselves as a person — their personality, relationships, accomplishments, spirituality — not just their physical appearance," Bulik says. "If we, as parents — fathers and mothers — use a lot of 'fat talk' or are disrespectful of our own bodies, our children see and hear everything we do."

Symptoms to watch for

Anorexia nervosa is a refusal to maintain a minimally normal weight for height, fear of gaining weight, and preoccupation with weight and body shape. Consequences of anorexia are muscle loss, weakening of the heart, osteoporosis, dehydration and hair loss.

Bulimia nervosa is overeating in secret followed by compensatory behavior (self-induced vomiting or using diuretics). Bulimics often fast, exercise compulsively, and become overly concerned with weight and shape. Consequences include heart irregularity due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, gastrointestinal issues, ulcers and tooth decay.

Binge eating disorder involves binge eating with an absence of compensatory behaviors. Consequences for health are the same as for obesity and include risk of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Who develops an eating disorder?

The NEDA estimates that 11 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder. University of Minnesota Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, an expert on eating disturbances in adolescence, identifies three types of risks for developing an eating disorder:

  • Poor body image/low self-esteem.
  • Messages in the environment that thin bodies are most attractive.
  • Dieting or binging.

Six prevention strategies

  1. Stress health, not weight. Help your child develop a better body image by consistently stressing health, not thinness. In my niece's case, her mother explained that her thighs were "just right" and not everyone's legs look quite the same.
  2. Explain the big payoff for sports. Talk to your kids about the importance of exercise and encourage them to participate in team sports. Current research indicates athletes feel better about their bodies and weight than nonparticipants.
  3. Model healthier behaviors yourself. Do not call yourself fat or talk negatively about your own body. If you are trying to lose weight, let your child know you are doing so to improve your health. Avoid skipping meals or using diet pills and instead model healthy eating and good exercise habits. Eileen realized her adolescent son was influenced by hearing her count points for the WeightWatchers program. It was necessary to educate him about the program and the reasons he needed to consume many more calories than weight-watching adults.
  4. Teach your child self-respecting strategies for coping with negative emotions and stress. Talking it out, exercise, meditation, music or counseling are a few healthy alternatives to overeating.
  5. Eat healthy meals at home. Neumark-Sztainer writes, "Family meals can play a major role in preventing eating disorders, especially in adolescent girls."
  6. Discuss images in magazines and on television that present unrealistic bodies. Help boys and girls understand (and laugh!) at these unattainable images in the media. Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to fashion magazines. A study by Kimberly Vaughan and Gregory Fouts linked the relationship of decreased eating disorder symptoms to decreased magazine reading.
Explain to your child that professional athletes and actresses like Halle Berry or Keira Knightley often work out for many hours daily to maintain such low weight. Help your child understand genetics and that healthy bodies are not one-size-fits-all. If your child's poor body image or low self-esteem concerns you, talk to a counselor or medical professional. For more information about eating disorders, visit NEDA online at or call its toll-free helpline at 800-931-2337.  n

Michele Ranard is a professional counselor, academic tutor and freelance writer. Visit her blog at


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