There is a fair amount of internet advice for parents on how to prevent eating disorders in their children. The majority of this advice centers around teaching children about healthy eating habits, moderate exercise, positive body image, and media literacy. This is great advice for parents to follow, but it does not prevent eating disorders. It may help to prevent body dissatisfaction and dieting, but these things are not the same as an eating disorder.
Ironically, many children and adolescents who are in treatment for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa report that their illness was triggered by a health or nutrition class at school, training for a sport, or a general desire to adopt the much-touted principles of “healthy eating and exercise.” Unfortunately, most of the information children receive on the benefits of “healthy eating and exercise” is really our fat-phobic society’s disguised attempt to shield our precious children from this horrible “obesity epidemic.” To make matters worse, this information is delivered to children by teachers, physicians, coaches, and parents – supposedly knowledgeable authority figures whose job is to educate, protect, and nurture them. Children who are predisposed to eating disorders are usually compliant, rule-bound, anxious, obsessive, perfectionistic, driven, and eager to please. They are virtual sponges who soak up this “healthy eating and exercise” information and follow it to the letter. The obesity hysteria terrifies them, and their obsessive, perfectionistic temperament makes them stellar dieters. This is the perfect storm for the development of an eating disorder.
I do not believe we should stop educating children about nutrition and exercise out of fear that they will develop eating disorders, much as I don’t believe we should stop educating adolescents about safe sex and contraception out of fear that they will become sexually active. More information is usually better than less, as long as the information is accurate, useful, and effective. The middle school and high school syllabi on sex education provide information which is accurate, useful, and effective (whether kids act on that information is another story). The information kids receive on “healthy eating and exercise” has not succeeded in improving their overall health, preventing eating disorders, or combating this alleged “obesity epidemic.”
I believe that, in terms of nutrition, kids should be taught about what to embrace rather than what to avoid. They should learn the importance of eating lots of fruit, vegetables, dairy products, protein, fat, and grains, and drinking plenty of water. They should be taught to enjoy their favorite snacks and deserts as well. They should not be taught about calories or the evils of sugar and fat; they should not be advised to avoid any foods, they should not learn to label foods as “good” or “bad,” and they should not be taught about the dangers of obesity or the virtue of thinness. Most importantly, I believe children should be taught about the dangers of dieting, much as they are taught about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and unprotected sex. The dangers of dieting are grossly underrated.
Even if nutrition education is accurate, useful, and effective, it will not prevent eating disorders. That being said, what steps can parents take to prevent their children from developing eating disorders? In my opinion, it all boils down to three basic principles: 1.) accurate information, 2.) vigilance, and 3.) immediate, aggressive, effective intervention.
The pop-psychology literature will have you believe that if you have a healthy body image yourself, encourage healthy body image in your children, nurture positive self-esteem, and preach the importance of healthy eating habits and exercise, your child will not develop an eating disorder. This assumption is simply untrue. Parents need to know that seemingly healthy, well-adjusted children with positive body images and excellent parents develop eating disorders all the time. Good parenting does not make your child immune. It can, however, improve your child’s chances of full recovery.
If your child develops an eating disorder, let go of guilt, shame, and self-blame. While it is natural for parents to blame themselves, guilt is a hindrance to effective action. Of course you have made mistakes in parenting – everyone has! You may be an imperfect parent, but this does not mean you caused your child’s illness. Despite what you may have heard in the media, there is no reliable scientific evidence to suggest that parents cause eating disorders. If your child’s pediatrician, dietician, or therapist suggests that the eating disorder is your fault, this is an indication that he or she is not aware of recent research on the etiology of eating disorders and effective treatments. Get a second opinion. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are biologically-based brain disorders, just like autism and schizophrenia. Although you are not to blame for causing your child’s eating disorder, it is your responsibility as a parent to ensure that she gets proper treatment. This responsibility includes protecting your child from outdated, ineffective treatments, which can often do more harm than good.
Parents also need to know that eating disorders are not limited to rich, white teenage girls. This stereotype is antiquated and dangerous, as it prevents individuals outside these demographic categories from being diagnosed and properly treated. Eating disorders strike children, adolescents, and adults; girls and boys, men and women; people of all ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Several years ago, during my training, I treated a severely underweight teenage boy with anorexia nervosa whose previous pediatrician had told him: “If you were a girl, I’d say you were anorexic.” As a result of this doctor’s failure to intervene, the patient’s condition rapidly deteriorated over the next two years, and by the time he presented in my office, he was in horrible shape.
Here are some concrete steps that parents can take to help prevent eating disorders. You may notice that, unlike other prevention tips you may have read, these tips center around proper nutrition and exercise. This is because all the feminist, feel-good, positive-body image talk in the world is not going to prevent eating disorders. Remember, anorexia nervosa has existed for centuries, long before thinness became fashionable. Eating disorders are triggered by an energy imbalance (consuming fewer calories than you expend) and perpetuated by malnutrition. If a child never becomes malnourished, she is extremely unlikely to develop an eating disorder.
• Make family meals a priority. As a parent, it is your job to prepare and serve nutritious foods. It is far better for a family to sit down to a balanced breakfast of cereal, milk, fruit, juice, and yogurt instead of grabbing a nutrigrain bar and running out the door.
• Closely monitor any changes in your child’s eating habits. Even seemingly “positive” dietary changes such as skipping desert, becoming vegetarian, or reducing fat intake can signal the onset of an eating disorder.
• Adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards any level of malnutrition. Do not allow your child to diet, skip meals, or cut out entire food groups. Children and teenagers need to eat three substantial, nutritious, well-balanced meals every day. Supervised, supported full nutrition is the best defense against an eating disorder.
• Be aware that eating disorders are sometimes triggered by unintentional malnourishment (for example, weight loss due to physical illness, depression, anxiety, stress, or surgery; fasting for religious purposes; side effects of a medication; intense physical exercise without a commensurate increase in nutrition). This type of malnourishment must be taken equally seriously. Dieting is not the only pathway to eating disorders (although it is the most common pathway in modern Western cultures).
Parents need to be on guard for early signs of eating disorders, especially during early adolescence, when most eating disorders develop. Since eating disorders are genetically transmitted, your child is much more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder if you or a relative has suffered from an eating disorder. Family histories of major depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, OCD, and addictions are also risk factors for developing eating disorders. If you have a family history of eating disorders or other mental illnesses, you should know that your child is at greater risk for developing an eating disorder, and you should be extra vigilant.
Some early signs of eating disorders masquerade as “healthy” behaviors or extreme dedication, or can easily be dismissed as typical teenage behavior. However, parents know their kids well. Most parents recognize, long before formal diagnosis, that something is “not quite right” with their child, but they aren’t sure what is wrong or they don’t know what to do. Here are some early signs and symptoms:
• Change in eating habits. This can take many forms, including following a formal diet plan, skipping meals, eating only at certain times, refusing to eat with other people, or anxiety around food. Even seemingly positive dietary changes, such as becoming vegetarian, reducing fat intake, skipping snacks and deserts, and eating only organic foods, can be early signs of an eating disorder.
• Increased preoccupation with food: taking about food, reading diet books, collecting recipes, cooking, serving food to others, sudden interest in what other people are eating.
• Change in mood or behavior. Parents often notice dramatic changes in their child’s personality, such as irritability, anxiety, depression, moodiness, frequent crying, restlessness, withdrawal, changes in sleeping patterns, or loss of interest. Increased dedication to schoolwork, sports, or other extracurricular activities and obsessive behavior in other areas can also be early signs.
• Increase in exercise. The child may begin solo running, take up a new sport, or show increased dedication to her current sports. If she is an athlete, she may begin training excessively outside of team practices. If she is a dancer, she may begin practicing at home, signing up for more dance classes, and auditioning for every possible performance opportunity.
• Weight loss, failure to gain weight, or failure to make expected gains in height. ANY weight loss in a child or adolescent, even a few pounds, may be cause for alarm. ANY failure to grow or gain weight as expected warrants further examination.
• Loss of menstrual periods.
• Signs of binge eating (for example, large amounts of food disappearing overnight).
• Signs of purging (for example, discovering laxatives in your child’s purse or smells of vomit in her bathroom).
Immediate, Aggressive, Effective intervention
I have never heard a parent say: “I wish I had waited longer before getting my child into treatment.” Most parents whose children are in treatment for eating disorders regret not intervening sooner. In addition, many parents report that they wish they had sought out evidence-based treatment immediately, rather than continuing with ineffective treatment as their child’s health declines. If you notice any of the signs or symptoms listed above, take action immediately. Here’s how:
• Educate yourself about eating disorders and evidence-based treatment. FEAST (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders) is an excellent resource for parents.
• Do not praise your child for her “healthy eating” habits or willpower around food. Instead, tell her that you have noticed a change in her eating habits and that you are concerned. For example: “I notice that you’re not enjoying ice cream with our family anymore. What has changed?”
• Be prepared for your child to insist that she is just trying to eat healthily, exercise more, or improve her performance in sports or dance. Many eating disorders begin this way but quickly spiral into deadly obsessions.
• Be prepared for your child to be in denial or to resist your efforts to intervene. Teenagers never say: “Mom, I think I’m developing anorexia nervosa, and I’m worried about my recent weight loss.” Denial, resistance, and lack of insight are symptoms of this disease, NOT indications that everything is OK. Don’t back down.
• Don’t waste time on “why.” When your child is developing an eating disorder, it is tempting to try to understand the reasons for it. Resist this temptation and tackle the symptoms immediately. The very foundation of ineffective eating disorder treatment begins with endless search for the “root cause” while the child continues to starve, binge, purge, and over-exercise as her physical and mental health deteriorate. A patient with an active eating disorder is generally unable to make effective use of psychotherapy because her brain is not functioning properly. Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses with serious mental and physical risks. Think of your child’s eating disorder as a tumor. It must be removed immediately, or it will grow and metastasize. The surgeon does not need to know the reason for the tumor in order to operate and remove it. The sooner you intervene, the better your child’s chances for complete recovery. There will be plenty of time for psychological work, including an exploration of potential triggers, later on in recovery, once your child is well-nourished and physically healthy.
• As soon as you suspect a problem, take your child to the pediatrician for a complete physical exam. Unfortunately, most physicians do not have specialized training in eating disorders and are unlikely to notice an eating disorder until it is in its advanced stages. Thus, you cannot always trust your child’s pediatrician to spot a problem. I have had many patients whose physicians have completely overlooked telltale signs such as weight loss, missed menstrual periods, or failure to grow. Consider taking your child to a pediatrician or adolescent medicine physician who specializes in eating disorders. Remember, trust your parental instincts. If you think there is something wrong with your child, you are probably right. It is far better to intervene immediately and later discover that everything is fine, rather than waiting until your child is in the acute phase of a life-threatening mental illness.
• If you intervene at the first sign of an eating disorder, your child may not meet full criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Thus, she may be diagnosed with Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or she may not be diagnosed with an eating disorder at all. This does not mean that your child’s problem isn’t serious or that immediate, aggressive intervention isn’t necessary. It simply means that your child is in the beginning stages of what is likely to become a severe, life-threatening mental illness if left untreated (or improperly treated). Your child is most likely to achieve complete, lasting recovery treatment begins immediately, rather than waiting for her to develop full-syndrome anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa and the myriad of psychological and physical problems these illnesses entail.
• If your child has been in therapy for a while and she continues to restrict her diet, lose weight, binge, or purge, therapy is not working. In early recovery, it does not matter if your child has a good relationship with her therapist, enjoys speaking with her, or trusts her. The therapeutic relationship is only therapeutic insofar as it promotes health, wellness, and recovery. Insight, self-exploration, and rapport are useless in the wake of malnutrition. Speak with your child’s therapist about taking a different approach. If your child’s therapist refuses to talk to you, or if you are not satisfied with the results of treatment, find a different therapist.
• Seek evidence-based psychological treatment for your child and your family. Most therapists, even ones who specialize in eating disorders, are not up-to-date on the latest research and most effective treatments. I have worked with many families who have taken their child to multiple eating disorders specialists over a period of several years and seen no symptom improvement whatsoever. This is usually because the therapists were not aware of recent scientific research on eating disorders and were not using evidence-based treatments. For children and adolescents, the strongest evidence base is for Maudsley Family-Based Treatment (FBT). Maudsley FBT is a highly practical, empirically-validated treatment method which empowers the family to help the patient recover and focuses on immediate restoration of nutritional and physical health before tackling psychological issues. Research has shown that 75-90% of adolescents treated with Maudsley FBT recover within 12 months and maintain their recovery at 5-year follow-up. In contrast, traditional treatment generally takes 5-7 years and only 33% of patients achieve full recovery.
• Remember that you are an essential member of your child’s treatment team. Your child’s treatment will be most effective if you are fully informed and actively involved. Interview any potential physicians, dieticians, therapists, and psychiatrists without your child present before your child meets them. Make sure that you are comfortable with their philosophy of eating disorders and their approach to treatment. Insist on being informed about your child’s progress in treatment and ask what you can do to help her recover. If the therapist will not inform you or include you in treatment decisions, find a new therapist.
• Recognize that your child’s eating disorder is neither her fault nor her choice. Do not wait for her to “choose” recovery, because she can’t. It is your job to choose recovery for her until she is well enough to take ownership of her treatment. Try to separate the disorder from the child you know and love. She is in there somewhere, and some day, she will thank you.