by Jillian Lampert, Ph.D.
Over 30 million individuals in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. So it’s important to understand ways to combat disordered eating and promote body acceptance in children. For parents who are hoping to teach body appreciation and food acceptance, it’s important to understand eating disorders and to foster a household of gratitude.
Promoting body acceptance in children could be a protective barrier against developing an eating disorder. Body acceptance is an important way to help children be resilient in the face of tremendous societal pressure to engage in disordered eating, eating disorders, and body hate.
1. Be honest
One way parents can promote body acceptance in their household is to be open and honest about the reality of the overly prevalent messages about body and appearance.
Teach children about how these unattainable fantasy images can put people at risk for eating disorders. By explaining eating disorders to children in an age-appropriate way, you can make sure they are getting the truth about the illnesses.
In addition, teach your children to have a critical eye when it comes to advertising, movies, and more. Emphasize that changing our bodies to be skinny or muscular can make us sick and that often, models of all genders are altered to look thin or lean because those images compel people to buy products that will help them feel valued by society.
Make sure your children know that these narrow depictions of appearance do not reflect everyday people. Share what you value about bodies and all the amazing things they can do.
Keep an open dialogue about societal body messaging – point out digitally altered ads or ridiculous messaging, and let your children know they can always bring questions or concerns to you.
2. Avoid body-talk
Parents are role models for their children. Children watch and see everything their parents do and it can have an effect on them. If a young child watches their parent talk negatively about their body, it’s likely that the child may view this as normal or copy the behavior. If a child’s parent looks in the mirror or the fridge and says they look fat or shouldn’t eat that, the child may learn that behavior.
Additionally, it’s recommended that parents avoid commenting negatively or superficially on their child’s appearance. It can be tempting to say things like, “You look so thin in that homecoming dress!” or “I can tell you have been working out.” However, these statements can misplace value on appearance instead of character and gratitude. They may also enforce disordered behaviors in children.
Instead of commenting on looks, try to praise personality, character, and accomplishments. You can replace, “You look so thin in that dress” by saying, “I am so proud that I raised a daughter that is succeeding in school and able to attend homecoming. I’m so happy that you have a great group of friends to go to homecoming with.”
3. Speak about what your body can do, not what it looks like
By focusing on what our bodies look like, we often demonstrate to children that how our bodies look to others is the most important thing about them, which is not true. Our bodies can accomplish great things and the importance of the amazing things our bodies can do is what we should be emphasizing to our children. It’s important to express these positives in a way that your children can witness and understand.
Easy examples of incorporating positive body messaging include praising your body for allowing you to go to your children’s soccer game, saying you are grateful that your body keeps you alive, or to play catch in the backyard.
It’s also important to teach children that ability does not equal worth. All bodies, regardless of size, shape, or ability, have value. They keep our hearts beating, our bodies warm, and allow us to move throughout the world in a way that works best for us.
4. Make food neutral
It’s important to model the fact that all food has a place in a healthy diet. Explain to your child that no food is “better” than another. Explain that just like only eating cake for two days in a row isn’t healthy for your body, just eating carrots for two days in a row isn’t healthy either.
Tell your children that bodies need balance and empower them to make food choices that serve their body’s needs.
A great activity to help you talk about the importance of food is to cook family dinner and get your children involved in the process of making healthy choices for themselves. Avoid classifying food as “good” or “bad” or set a particular order in which foods need to be eaten.
Try this instead with children: If you are having dessert at a meal, put everything offered at that meal on the table and let kids practice choosing what and when they want to eat certain foods. You might not like to eat your peas and your cookies at the same time, but your child might! Plus, it teaches them that peas and cookies are both food – that one is not inherently more powerful than another and that they both have value in a balanced diet.
Working to make food neutral helps kids to stay in touch with their internal hunger and fullness cues and not rely on external messaging about what they “should” want to eat. Help them to find the “just right” amount for them – are they hungry? How do they know? Are they full? How do they know? Listening to our bodies provides the wisdom we need to fuel our bodies well.
5. Encourage gratitude
By planting seeds of gratitude into young children, you can encourage body acceptance and appreciation. Work to incorporate one or two moments of gratitude into your children’s day.
You could say thanks before dinner or you could have a goodnight routine where you say one thing you are grateful for that day.
Make sure that you are sharing what you are grateful for, too. Some examples could include, “I am grateful for my body which let me go to the grocery store with my family” or “I am thankful for my strong arms because they let me hug my children.”
Eating Disorder Basics
Promoting body acceptance in children can help them be resilient when faced with the pressure we put on bodies in our society. Endless comments about weight and food can create the perfect storm for eating disorders.
Here is a quick overview of the eating disorder basics so you can keep an eye out for any warning signs in your child.
Eating disorders are complex biologically-based mental illnesses that can cause severe harm. They are often marked by extremes, such as dramatic weight changes or uncontrollable thoughts and behaviors. Eating disorders are not a choice, phase, or fad. Luckily, eating disorders are treatable by professional teams made up of a therapist, doctor, and dietitian.
Types of eating disorders and their related signs and symptoms include:
Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia revolves around the desire to lose weight and reduce calorie intake. It also includes an obsession with size, shape, weight, and appearance. Typical signs include a desire to lose weight, food restriction, over-exercise, and seeing one’s body as larger than others do.
Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by a cycle of overeating followed by purging, fasting, laxative use and/or over-exercising. Individuals suffering from bulimia may purge in secret several times a day. Warning signs include food that disappears, overeating, frequent bathroom use after meals, and signs of purging.
Binge Eating Disorder. BED is defined by repetitive and uncontrollable consumption of large amounts of food. This food consumption is often used to soothe negative emotions. Warning signs include compulsive eating, excessive eating without hunger, relying on food to ease negative feelings, and feeling a lack of control around food. Often, those with BED experience sickness, shame, or guilt following binge eating.
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder. OSFED includes eating disorders that don’t meet the criteria for Anorexia, Bulimia, BED or Compulsive Overeating. Signs of OSFED include weight fluctuations, changes in food behavior and intake, negative self-talk, and more.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. ARFID is a disturbance in eating that involves the consumption of a very limited variety of food, resulting in substantial weight loss, nutritional deficiency and/or difficulty engaging in day-to-day activities. Warning signs may include weight loss, fear of choking on food, fear of food causing illness, a lack of interest in food, but with the absence of body image concerns.
Look for warning signs
Common warning signs of eating disorders in children include:
• Weight changes
• Strange food behaviors
• Avoidance of food or particular food groups
• Restricting food or engaging in purging behaviors
• Compulsive behaviors
• Personality changes
Teaching and modeling body acceptance to your child is important and could be a protective barrier against developing an eating disorder. If you are concerned about your child’s relationship with food or body, it’s important to bring your child in for an eating disorder assessment and possibly treatment. If you aren’t sure where to start, you can call The Emily Program or research eating disorder treatment options near you.
Jillian Lampert, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., L.D., F.A.E.D, is the Chief Strategy Officer for The Emily Program, a specialized eating disorder treatment program with locations in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington. Jillian is a long-time advocate for eating disorder recovery and hopes that one day, all individuals can experience a peaceful relationship with food and body. Jillian’s main goal in life is to raise her daughter to accept and love her body.