So many of our cultural health norms are not actually healthy, which is why I’ve put together a list of the four health myths you should ignore to prevent eating disorders.
Look, it’s not our fault that we’re confused about health. We’re surrounded by powerful industries that create and reinforce health myths. We have the diet industry, the food industry, and the fitness, beauty, and fashion industries. They are all motivated and skilled at making us believe they have the answer to being healthy. But while health does require the basics: food, housing, and food, consumer goods are not the path to health. Health is an inside job.
Raising healthy kids
Jon and Theresa always wanted the very best for their two kids. Theresa is a nurse and Jon runs marathons. Together, they thought they knew what to do to raise healthy kids. But now that their kids are tweens, they see signs of disordered eating.
“My first hint that something was wrong was when whole containers of peanut butter and loaves of bread would disappear,” says Theresa. “We don’t keep candy, cookies, or chips in the house, but when we went to parties I would see my kids hovering over the food table, grabbing every bit of junk food they could get their hands on. It was shocking to see them put away so much food so quickly. I tell them they will get stomachaches, but they don’t stop. It seems like they have a limitless capacity for junk food.”
Jon agreed. “At first I thought that meant we needed even stricter rules, but now I’m not so sure. It seems like maybe we’ve raised them in such a carefully-managed environment that they just go crazy when they’re out in the real world. I just don’t know how we can keep them healthy anymore – my rules don’t seem to be working very well.”
The relationship is what matters
Often parents worry so much about feeding kids a “junk-free” diet. But in doing so they don’t realize that their kids’ relationship with food and their body is what’s most important. And without a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, kids are susceptible to disordered eating and eating disorders.
Theresa and Jon are worried that their older daughter is developing binge eating disorder. “She’s eating a lot more than usual at night and then skipping breakfast and lunch almost every day,” says Jon. “Sometimes we catch her in the pantry at night, and she seems so desperate and unhappy. Last night she was sobbing in my arms about how much weight she is gaining. I told her she’s beautiful, but it didn’t help.”
“I realize that we have created a lot of food rules and restrictions in our house, and even though our goal was health, it’s not working out so well,” says Theresa. “We both grew up with SpaghettiOs, Pop-Tarts, Top Ramen, and frozen pizzas and burritos, and maybe being so strict with food as parents was an overcorrection.”
Theresa and Jon are not alone. We want to do everything we can to raise healthy kids, but sometimes common health advice gets in the way of them having a positive relationship with food and their body. Even though health myths are everywhere, parents can safely ignore most of them, especially if they want to prevent eating disorders. Health doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s not easy parenting in the midst of all these health myths. But we can do it!
Here are the four parenting myths you can ignore to prevent eating disorders:
Myth 1: my kids will never stop eating sugar and junk
There is a powerful myth in our culture that kids, and all people, are insatiably drawn to sugar and “junk” food. And while there is plenty of evidence that food companies strategically create food that appeals to our genetic predisposition to eating lots of life-giving calories, this doesn’t tell the full story.
Yes, our bodies are very attracted to sweet, salty, and fat-filled food. But bodies are not naturally insatiable unless they are experiencing restriction (famine). In fact, it’s becoming increasingly understood that eating an entire sleeve of Oreos is more likely based on the fact that you have negative beliefs about the Oreos and have told yourself not to eat them than the Oreos themselves. You read that right: restriction, not access to delicious food, breeds binge eating.
There are many people who raise kids using Intuitive Eating and/or Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence method. With these eating styles, people feed themselves healthfully but don’t avoid foods(except for allergies), eat according to appetite, and don’t use weight as a measurement of success. These styles of eating have been associated with the highest levels of health across multiple domains, from cardiovascular to mental health. They are also protective against eating disorders.
Parents should serve kids regular meals featuring a variety of food. Meals should include starches, fats, vegetables/fruits, protein, and dairy (if there’s no lactose intolerance). To avoid binge eating or an unhealthy relationship with food, serve desserts and other tasty, highly palatable foods as part of your regular rotation.
I know it’s hard to believe, but when you serve all the foods, you’ll raise kids who naturally modulate their food intake and don’t suffer from a scarcity mentality that drives binge eating and/or dieting and restriction. The best thing you can do for your child’s physical and mental health is to raise them to have a healthy relationship with food.
Myth 2: I need to lose weight to be healthy
We live in a culture that is cruel to bodies, so it’s not unusual for parents to be actively working to lose weight with diet and fitness programs. Or on the other hand, parents may feel so discouraged that they don’t feed their bodies well, move them enough, or otherwise treat them with kindness and respect.
Disliking and tearing apart our bodies and trying to achieve health with weight loss is a cultural obsession that is linked to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Surprisingly, intentional weight loss is not associated with increased health and is associated with higher lifetime BMI.
There are many myths linking weight loss to health, when in fact it is the most common precursor to weight gain and eating disorders.
- Am I actively trying to lose weight?
- Would other people judge my exercise program as intense or extreme?
- Do I think I need to lose weight?
- Am I struggling with binge eating?
- Would other people say that my eating is “pure,” “clean,” or otherwise admirable based on social media standards?
- Am I avoiding events and celebrations because I feel ashamed of my body?
- Before attending events and celebrations, do I try to lose weight so I look better?
- Do I have bad body thoughts almost all day, every day?
One of the most important things we can do to prevent eating disorders is to heal our own relationship with food and our body. Our children listen when we groan and complain about our bellies, thighs, and other body parts. Our children are watching when we limit our dinner to a salad with no dressing. They know when our exercise is more compulsive than pleasurable.
It’s best if we can adopt a non-diet approach to health. This is not “letting ourselves go,” it is respecting our bodies. This includes eating healthfully (see what that means above), and movement, which is great for almost all bodies. But dieting to lose weight or adopting extreme fitness programs can have serious consequences for our own bodies and our kids.
Myth 3: I need to manage my kid’s weight
The essential health behaviors we need to manage for our kids are:
- Meals and snacks: serve a variety of foods regularly, reliably, and in a pleasant environment
- Movement: provide access to free play, P.E., individual/team sports, and/or family physical activities like hiking or dancing together in the living room
- Sleep: depending on their age, our kids need 8-12 hours of sleep. Sleep is essential for both mental and physical health and should be carefully managed.
But should parents “manage” kids’ weight? Should we monitor it and restrict their food and/or increase exercise if their weight increases or has always been higher than we’d like it to be?
The simple answer is clear: no. The idea that parents need to control kids’ weight is one of the most harmful myths contributing to eating disorders.
And I’m not coddling kids by saying this. The most common outcome of parents who restrict kids’ food with the goal of weight loss is actually higher lifetime weight. That’s right: attempts to control weight actually increase weight. Dieting and weight control in childhood and adolescence predict higher BMI in adulthood. This is because of a syndrome called weight-cycling.
Basically, when you intentionally lose weight, your body kicks in a bunch of biological systems to deal with the perceived famine. Your body has many non-conscious methods such as slowing your metabolism and extracting every single calorie from your diet to try and maintain homeostasis. It will do everything it can to get you back to the weight you were before, often with a little extra to keep you safe.
Restrictive diets and intentional weight loss are both strong predictors of an eating disorder.
It makes sense in our society that parents worry about kids’ weight. Nonetheless, parents should not try to manage or reduce kids’ weight. Focus on healthful feeding, enjoyable movement, and sleep, and trust your child’s body to settle into the weight it’s meant to be.
Myth 4: health is something I can see
Multi-billion dollar industries are dedicated to convincing us that health is visible. After all, if we believe that health is something we can see, we are more likely to buy the products that promise to make us look healthier. Gorgeous models are hired and Photoshopped to sell us the idea that beauty and thinness equal health. But it’s simply not true.
The myths saying we can see health by observing someone’s weight contribute to eating disorders. Health is an inside job. Heavier people are just as likely to be healthy as thinner people. People who are not gorgeous can be just as healthy as gorgeous people. So what can parents actually do to improve kids’ health? Raise your kids in a healthy environment by following these guidelines:
- Don’t diet and don’t let kids diet (dieting is associated with weight gain and eating disorders)
- Feed kids healthfully (using Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence model)
- Get kids moving for fun and function (with friends and with you)
- Protect kids’ sleep (meet the minimum age-based requirements)
- Build healthy emotional connections with your children (enjoy them and make family time meaningful and fun)
- Help kids learn to self-regulate their emotions (begin by co-regulating with them to build this skill)
These are the basic foundations of health. If you achieve these six things, your child has the structure and support they need to be healthy. And if problems arise, as they probably will, you’ll have the tools to help your child feel better soon.
Theresa and Jon are getting parent coaching to help them build a food- and body-friendly household for their kids. They’re working on being a lot more flexible with how they define health and developing new communication and emotional skills. They can see that certain health myths were increasing their kids’ risk of eating disorders.
Their daughter has responded well to their changes. She is eating more regular meals and experiencing fewer binge-eating episodes. There is less stress around food and she can comfortably eat a few cookies without feeling the urge to binge eat all of them and then restrict afterward to try and make up for it.
Last week they went to an annual family event that is known for its delicious and formerly forbidden foods. This year, Jon and Theresa noticed that their kids ate and enjoyed the food, but they also spent far more time with their cousins. They were not chained to the food table, but rather socialized and enjoyed themselves.
Both kids are more relaxed around food. It took a little bit of time, but now they are showing all the signs of being competent eaters. Eating is a lot more fun and less stressful for everyone. And Jon and Theresa feel more confident and secure that they are raising their kids in a truly healthy environment.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.
For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.