When was the last time you looked in the mirror with a satisfied smile and thought, “Wow, I look strong, I feel great and I’m healthy?” Has it been a while? Unfortunately, we tend to focus on our hips being too big, not having enough definition in our arms, those few extra pounds we can’t seem to get rid of or the wrinkles on our face. Our society has become so focused on appearance and an unrealistic picture of beauty, that it is no wonder 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat and 42 percent of first through third grade girls want to be thinner. The messages they receive from the media and their peers tell them their appearance defines them, and it starts young!In recognition of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we’re shedding light on this important, but often avoided, topic. Why should you care? The statistics surrounding eating disorders, even at a young age, are striking:
- Girls are two and a half times more likely than boys to have an eating disorder; however, approximately 10-15 percent of those suffering from anorexia or bulimia are male.
- Eating disorders tend to occur in children and young adults; 95 percent of those who have an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25.
- Many young girls cite advertisements as their idea of a perfect body shape, even though the body type portrayed in advertising is naturally possessed by only 5 percent of females.
There are varying types of eating disorders, which all present different symptoms. Anorexia nervosa is the deliberate self-starvation to lose weight. Those suffering from anorexia may try to lose weight by exercising excessively, eating little to no food or through self-induced vomiting or misusing laxatives. Bulimia nervosa is a disease characterized by a habit of overeating followed by a purge, in the form of self-induced vomiting, fasting, over-exercising or misuse of laxatives. Binge eating disorder is characterized by overeating NOT followed by a purge, and often results from using food to deal with stress or low self-esteem. No matter the type of eating disorder, it is important that these behaviors are addressed as they can lead to other health concerns like osteoporosis, delayed menstruation or loss of menstruation (amenorrhea), cardiovascular issues and metabolic issues.Though eating disorders are more common in adolescents, the dangerous behaviors can begin at a young age. Early signs of an eating disorder include:
- Preoccupation with being thin or losing weight
- Fear of gaining weight
- A distorted body image
- Extreme thinness
- Restrictive eating behaviors
While it is normal for preschoolers to be picky eaters, a school-aged child restricting whole food groups or refusing to eat certain foods can be a concern. It is also important to note that while extreme thinness or food avoidance on their own wouldn’t immediately point to an eating disorder, a combination of the above factors could raise concern and be a reason to start talking with your child about their bodies.Many factors can contribute to developing an eating disorder including genetics, environment, media and peers. And, although eating disorders can’t always be prevented, how you teach your child about eating habits can prevent unhealthy relationships with food in the long run. Rachel Gow, a Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR) psychologist specializing in obesity and eating disorders at CHoR’s Healthy Lifestyles Center, shares her dos and don’ts for teaching your kids about healthy eating choices:
- DON’T diet or talk about dieting! Focus the discussion on healthy eating.
- DON’T force your children to eat something they don’t want to eat.
- DO encourage your children to try at least one bite of everything on their plate, but don’t get into a power struggle over it.
- DO set regular meal and snack times.
- DON’T add an unscheduled snack time if your child refuses to eat their meal. They can wait until the next regular eating time.
- DON’T punish or reward using food.
- DO make meal time a positive, family activity.
- DON’T make your child clean their plate.
- DO teach your kids to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
Remember, your actions and attitudes toward body image impact your children. Pay attention to the language you use when talking about your own appearance and others. Next time you look in the mirror and want to complain about your body, imagine your young daughter looking at her own body in the mirror with such distain. Let’s change the conversation to focus on health and inner beauty, instead of watching models on TV and treating that as the ideal. Let’s let our kids know it’s an unrealistic picture of beauty, teaching them to respond to the media and not just accept it. Instead of dieting and restricting ourselves, let’s teach our kids about healthy eating habits and eating for nutrition. Let’s celebrate ourselves so we teach our children to do the same.If you start to notice your child being preoccupied with weight or appearance, consider speaking with their pediatrician about your concerns. Together, you can determine the best course of action and decide whether or not speaking with a counselor is necessary.