This article on teen eating disorders is part of a series on teenage nutrition. You can read the introduction to this series from these two articles “What Is On Your Family’s Breakfast Plate” and “Teenage Nutrition: Why You Should Pick This Battle For Your Adolescent.” We are very excited to bring you this and hope you feel comfortable to add your own thoughts, tips and suggestions.
The rise in eating disorders and poor body image in children and teens
Who is the mom in this article that wants to keep normal eating the norm? Tis I and I can admit, even as a dietitian and health professional, this goal of keeping kids eating normal is not always easy. I have four kids ranging from 6 to 13 years old. Three daughters and one son. If my kids follow the statistical norm on body image and eating disorders then by the time they have all finished puberty: at least one of my daughters will see themselves as overweight and maybe three of the four kids will try to lose weight. From the American Psychological Association:
- 50% of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight
- 80% of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight
- Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives
What can these disordered eating habits lead to?
- Anorexia Nervosa (which is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents)
- Partial-Eating disorder
- Disordered Eating
- Binge eating
These are serious medical issues and can lead to mortality. During adolescence when teenagers are growing in high velocity, having an eating disorder or abnormal eating patterns can be devastating for the child and parents.
The rising statistics on negative body image and distorted eating have some links to childrens’ self-esteem. As clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD, found through her collaboration with the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, seven in 10 girls feel they do not measure up in some way and that 75 percent of girls with low self-esteem report engaging in negative and potentially harmful activities, such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking or drinking. This is compared with 25 percent of girls with high self-esteem. A big reason to help kids look at themselves positively.
Is there a connection with rise in childhood obesity rates and earlier onset of eating disorders?
Helping kids to see their body image in a positive way is no easy battle. It is no secret that in most industrialized countries rates of obesity in children is heading to epidemic proportions, if it hasn’t gotten there yet. In America childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Presently, more than a third of children and teens are overweight or obese. If a child is overweight or obese, there is a delicate line with helping them keep up a positive and healthy view on their body with guiding them to grow and thin out.
The connection between eating disorders and obesity is multifaceted, but is linked between a poor body image and disordered eating. A good summary of the overlying similarities between obesity and eating disorders can be found here, “Eating Disorders and Obesity.”
Influence of media, especially magazines is powerful and is a sharp extreme to the bigger world kids live in
The internet and the media play roles in teens’ body perception.
- 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures
- 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.
Eating disorders are not blamed wholly on family influences
Recent research on eating disorders points to genetic and biological factors as having risk factors on the development of an eating disorder. Studies have concluded that there is a strong genetic component to eating disorders and the hereditary symptoms showing themselves during puberty and not before. Hormones and pleasure centers in the brain seem to connect with symptoms and onset of bulimia, in particular. A summary of these research studies can be found here, ” New Solutions.”
A mom’s body image, approach to food and diet and mental health influences her children
When a mom has a good body image, eats healthy, has normal eating habits and exercises regularly, this can only be a positive influence on her children, do you agree? And if the opposite was true: a mom (or dad) constantly on a diet with abnormal approaches to eating and ways to control their body image and weight. Could this have a wide negative implications on how their children look at their own bodies, try to control their own weight and approach food and dietary habits abnormally? I think so. Parents that have a normal approach to eating have a higher chance to have kids with normal eating, even in a country like America where normal eating is becoming the extreme,”Your Child’s Normal Eating Starts With Your Normal Eating.”
- One study found that 40% of 9- and 10-year-old girls trying to lose weight generally did so with the urging of their mothers.
With disordered eating and eating disorders on the rise in boys, fathers also play a role at home and in the family dynamics with either promoting healthy body images or not.
Living in France makes it easier, but it doesn’t prevent eating disorders and poor body image in teens
The mom in the title of this article? That is me. My approach to keep normal eating the norm is simple. Food is just that: food. The more challenging part is helping my children have a good self-esteem while allowing them to make mistakes. Perhaps with a healthy approach to food and eating, eating healthy habits and keeping self-esteem in the positive category, my kids won’t be part of the eating disorder statistics. Nothing is guaranteed. As puberty is a main time where symptoms appear, this is the time I will be extra vigilant for them.
In France, meal discipline is strict, with children and adults. The French culture baths in cooking, no snacking and eating slowly. Education on food is collaborated between school and at home. But eating disorders happen worldwide and France is no exception. Here are some themes that I try to promote on a personal level and also with open communication with my children:
- Never weigh myself, or if I do it is without the eyes of my children
- Never talk about dieting or say negative body image remarks such as “These pants make me look fat“
- Food is just food and we don’t label foods we eat, “This food will make you fat“
- No force feeding or finishing all food on the plates
- Eating together as much as possible
- Promoting regular exercise and physical activity
- Children’s awareness that there are different body shapes and sizes. No one body shape is perfect.
- Not buying magazines that consistently show unrealistic body images or discuss diets and body improvement.
- Educating awareness of hunger and full cues
And your story? What habits do you promote at home to keep your kids away from abnormal eating and demonstrate normal eating? Have you experienced an eating disorder in your child? How did you recognize it and what did you do about it? Would love to hear your story.
Here is a great resource for recognizing the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children and teens. You can also find organizations and telephone numbers to obtain additional help:
The image we have of ourselves is a message to our kids that is both underestimated and important. We can influence our children’s body image and approach to food and eating in a positive way. It starts with us, as moms and dads.
If you would like to read other teenage nutrition articles in this series, click on the links here: When A Gain In Your Teenager’s Weight May Not Be A Concern, Teenagers and Energy Drinks, Teens and Endocrine Disruptors, Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Teens, Teens and Caffeine, Importance of Good Nutrition in Teens, Vitamin and Mineral Supplements in Teens,Vegetarianism in Teens. and Hormone Changes in Teens Affect Their Smell.