• By Julie Stefanski
  • In Uncategorized
  • September 19, 2018

Preventing Eating Disorders In Our Weight Obsessed Culture

By Robin Klein RD, CSP, LDN, CHWC

A staggering 40-60% of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight (Smolack 2011). A national study in 2014 revealed that such body image concerns were not exclusive to girls. Eighteen percent of boys ages 12 to 18 were found to be highly concerned about their weight and physique. Additionally, weight concerned boys were at an increased risk of depression, binge drinking, and drug use (Field et al 2014). Such body dissatisfaction has led to increased instances of dieting that are ultimately counterproductive (95% of dieters regain the weight they lost within 1-5 years) and leave individuals feeling inadequate or unacceptable by society’s standards (Grodstein et al 1996). Most importantly, large scale studies reveal that putting children or adolescents on a diet is a strong predictor of developing an eating disorder (Patton et al 1999, Golden et al 2016).


These alarming statistics are a direct result of the messages that we receive from society implying that we are in control of our body size if we follow a specific diet. It’s natural for parents to feel pressured to strictly control their children’s diet as that’s what society teaches us is healthy for children. These messages aren’t true and are actually damaging. The attitudes, beliefs and comments of parents related to body image, food, exercise, and health have a profound influence on children of all ages. While it’s true that we aren’t always in control of what messages our kids receive from external sources, we can control the messages they receive in the home.


Below are some suggestions on how to promote healthy body image and well-being while preventing eating disorders.

Avoid commenting on bodies –yours, your kids, and others

While parents’ comments are usually well-intended, several studies have found that discussions about weight and dieting (whether parents are talking about their own diet or encouraging their child to diet), increases the likelihood of weight gain and eating disorders (Nemark et al). Our society praises weight loss, but praising someone for losing weight, criticizing someone for gaining weight, and commenting on bodies in general is harmful. We don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life that resulted in weight loss or weight gain and it’s none of our business. You cannot judge a person’s health by only looking at their weight. You might be praising someone for weight loss who was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, is going through a traumatic life experience, or is at an all-time low with their eating disorder. You might be criticizing someone for weight gain who has experienced traumatic life changes or no longer fears certain food groups. Additionally, if you criticize someone about their size, you are implying that someone’s natural body size is not good enough. None of these messages are constructive or acceptable.

Don’t label food. Labeling food assigns a moral value

When we consider a food as good or bad, we imply that we are good or bad for eating (or not eating) that food. If children hear you say that you are good for eating salad and bad for eating cake, they will internalize this message. This is detrimental and leads to fearing food, restriction, and binge eating. There are certain nutrients known to have a positive impact on our health, but it is unnecessary to focus ONLY on eating those nutrients or singling out nutrients without considering the big picture. Furthermore, what’s healthy for one child might be different for another. Helping your children incorporate a variety of foods and nutrients without labeling will help kids develop a more positive relationship with food and their bodies, which will assist in the prevention of developing an eating disorder. Spend more time eating together, cooking together, and acting as a positive role model. Allow your children to see you eating foods of all types without labeling yourself with the food choice.

Praise your children for their personality/character strengths – not their bodies

Praise them for standing up for themselves or someone else. Praise them for their creativity, resilience, kindness, generosity, and respectfulness. Praise them for their hard work. Praise them for being a good listener. Do not praise your children on their weight, body, pant size or overall appearance. This is particularly important for young children and teenagers as they are in their formative years.

Express empathy and encourage connection and communication especially if your child has been bullied about her/his weight

If your daughter or son tells you that she/he was bullied about her/his weight, talk about it. Open the dialogue– sometimes it’s helpful to share a personal experience (if applicable). Make it known that your love and support is unconditional. Don’t use this as an opportunity to tell your child that a different body will make her/him more worthy, accepted, or loveable.

Be mindful of social media usage – 24/7 access to people’s carefully curated posts can be extremely damaging

Research today suggest that kids and people of all ages who spend more time scrolling on social media feel less satisfied in their bodies and their lives and have higher rates of anxiety and depression (de Vries et al 2016). It is also important to be mindful of what and how you are posting. What messages are you passing on to your children?

Practice intuitive eating with kids

Intuitive eating is a practice in which you give yourself permission to eat all foods and reclaim the ability to listen to your body to determine hunger and fullness. Make this a fun and enjoyable experience. Intuitive eating gives you the chance to lead the food neutral approach to living. It’s an empowering way to eat and enjoy all foods and helps kids (and adults) become more in tune with their bodies.

Cook with your kids

Teach them all the recipes and tricks you know, from how to put together a vibrant salad, to how to bake the most perfect decadent fudgy brownies. Empower them to feel comfortable and confident cooking in the kitchen while showing them that a variety of foods can fit into their lifestyle, free of judgment.

Be careful about what you purchase for the home and what is readily available

Are all the foods you’re purchasing labeled “low-fat” or “reduced guilt” or “healthy?” Do you have an abundance of different types of foods in your home?

Remember, children of all ages are sponges – they learn by what they see and by what they hear. Examine your own attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and behaviors about food, weight, body image, physical appearance, health, and exercise and be mindful of how these may transfer to the messages you pass on to your children. While these changes don’t happen overnight, little by little they make a huge difference in the prevention of eating disorders.


Robin is a Registered Dietitian, Board Certified Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition, and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She is currently working as a Supermarket RD in addition to seeing private clients in Philadelphia. It is Robin’s passion to help individuals transform their relationship with food and their bodies. You can follow her brand new accounts on social media @RobinKleinRD (instagram and twitter) or email robinkleinRD@gmail.com




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