In a nation obsessed with thinness and beauty, it's not surprising that eating disorders and body image issues abound. What is surprising: how early it starts. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), as many as 60 percent of children between ages 6 and 12 worry about weight gain, and half of American teens think they're overweight.
That's a serious problem, since body image issues can lead to eating disorders ranging from fad diets and binge eating to life-threatening conditions such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. A study in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that more than half a million teens had an eating disorder. And boys aren't immune; a recent study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that 31 percent of boys between 12 and 18 had at some point binged on food or purged.
It's a serious problem, but one that can be prevented. Here are six ways to teach healthy eating and protect your teen or 'tween from disordered eating:
1. Teach embodied eating. Skip the clean-plate club, and teach kids to eat according to internal cues. That means paying attention to-and trusting-feelings of hunger and satiety, not how much food is left on the plate or whether it's "time" to eat. Embodied eating also means no cell phones, television, or other distractions during meals. And consider changing the language around food; instead of "Are you full?" try asking, "Are you satisfied?"
2. Don't make food "bad." "Bad" is a moral judgment that has no place in a conversation about food. And when your kid eats pizza, bagels, or other "bad" food-which he will-you don't want him to feel guilty about it. Banning certain foods only backfires. In one study, people who were deprived of their favorite foods responded by overeating those very foods. Instead of forbidding foods, talk about "sometimes" versus "always" foods, and let things such as chocolate cake or Buffalo wings be an occasional treat. Also teach your child to pay attention to his or her body's reactions. If your teen notices that when she eats a candy bar, her body feels terrible, she will learn to make food choices according to her needs-not yours.
3 Model healthy eating. If you encourage kids to eat slowly and mindfully at the table with no distractions, and then you shovel down a bowl of cereal while leaning against the counter and talking on your cell phone, your words will carry little meaning. Instead, be a good model for healthy eating. Model everything you want kids to do: sit down for meals, tune in, eat slowly, stop when you're satisfied. And talk about your food choices in the context of how they'll impact your body. For example, "My body is feeling tired, so I think I'll have some greens to energize it," or "That cheesecake looks good, but I know it won't make my body feel good." And above all, if you do overdo it one day, don't beat yourself up. Instead of "I'm such a loser. I can't believe I ate so much," say "Wow, I feel crummy after eating those donuts. I don't think I'll do that again."
4. Reframe cultural messages. The media teaches kids that thin is in, fat is bad, food is for pleasure, and other questionable, even harmful, messages. You can't ban media, but you can frame it appropriately. Talk to your kids about media messages that only certain body types are acceptable. Listen to their self-image issues, and keep reminding them that healthy bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. And be careful with your language, especially if you struggle with your own body image issues. When you talk about how awful you look in those jeans, you're telling kids to judge a body's worth by how it looks.
5. Don't use the "D" word. Dieting, calorie restriction, food avoidance, or any other kind of eating that comes from the mind, versus the body's impulses, can set kids up for problems. A recent study found that dieting at an early age increased the risk of developing eating disorders and unsafe weight-loss behaviors.
Explain that unnecessarily restricting calories can impact growth, brain development, and overall health. If your teen or 'tween is overweight, a shift in eating that emphasizes healthy foods, and that's vetted by a health care professional, may be appropriate. But kids shouldn't diet because of peer pressure or low self esteem.
6. Cook with your kids. When teens and 'tweens have an active role in meal planning and preparation, they feel more empowered. Sit down with your child and plan out the week's meals. Go shopping together, and tell them about the benefits of different foods-for example, "yellow peppers are good for your skin" or "blueberries help your memory." Let them experiment and choose interesting selections the family may not have tried, such as white asparagus or cherimoya. And cook together; it's a great way to bond, and allow kids to feel they have control over what they eat.