Let’s Focus on Dieting Prevention (Eating Disorders Awareness Week)

“It’s fine to raise awareness about eating disorders, but I believe more focus should be on preventing dieting, because eating disorders are not illnesses that inexplicably happen to people. Nearly all cases of anorexia and bulimia, and a large number of cases of BED, would never occur without the initial diet, just like a drug addiction would never occur without that first hit.” -Brain over Binge, pg 276

My small contribution to Eating Disorders Awareness Week is to try to make you more aware of how you talk about food and weight when children are around. In being more careful with our words, I believe a lot of dieting behavior in young people (which can lead to life-threatening eating disorders in some, and lifelong misery in others) can be prevented.

We live in a country where 80 percent of girls have been on a diet by the time they are 10 years old. We tend to blame the media and “unrealistic” models and celebrities, but I think we also need to look at adult role models – parents, teachers, coaches, relatives, friends – who are too often discussing diets and weight when little ones are listening. Even seemingly innocent comments from adult role models add up over time, causing children to feel like dieting is a normal part of growing up.

It’s becoming common knowledge that dieting* isn’t an effective long-term weight loss strategy for anyone , but those who have kids or spend time with them need to know that dieting is especially dangerous in young people. Not only does it negatively affect their growth and development, neurological factors in children/adolescents make them more likely to develop an eating disorder in response to a diet.

Areas of the brain that handle self-control and rational decision making are underdeveloped in young people, so it’s their primitive brains and instincts that dominate. They have strong survival mechanisms which make them sensitive to any threat of starvation (which is what the body perceives a diet to be). When the primitive brain senses that food is scarce, it slows the metabolism, and produces strong cravings – usually driving the person to break the diet and regain the weight (often even more weight than was lost). Sometimes, however, this reaction is more extreme, and the starved brain will drive the person to binge eat, which can lead to bulimia or binge eating disorder. Conversely – in susceptible individuals, or after a prolonged period of dieting – the body/brain will “adapt” to starvation by shutting down the appetite and drive for food, which happens in anorexia.

Without fully functional rational brains, children and adolescents are in danger of becoming trapped by these skewed instincts. Although there is more research to be done in the etiology of eating disorders, and there are certainly factors that render one more vulnerable; it is now becoming evident that the majority of eating disorders are brain problemscaused by dieting, and are not psychological illnesses.

So, this week, while many are focusing on raising awareness of psychological risk factors and symptoms of eating disorders, I want to try to help prevent the cause.

My simple message for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is this: Please be aware of what you say about weight and diets when kids are listening. Stop saying negative comments about your body, and stop talking about your desire to lose weight. Your children think you are great just the way you are.

Stop commenting on the weight of others. Don’t say who has lost or gained, or who is too thin or too fat. Teach children that we are all different and all worthy, and people are about much more than their appearance.

Don’t say that a certain food is too fattening or will make you gain weight. It’s great to teach your kids which foods are the most nourishing, but don’t make it about body size.

After you’ve eaten, don’t express feelings of guilt in front of your kids. Don’t say you “shouldn’t” have eaten this or that. If you feel you made a bad choice, move on and make a better choice next time.

Please don’t warn kids that one day they’ll have to “watch their weight,” and they will no longer be able to eat whatever they want. The truth is that an attitude of deprivation only leads to more overeating and weight gain in the long run. Of course we want our kids to make good food choices, but instilling a restrictive mindset in them won’t help them reach that goal. If someone tells you that you look nice, please don’t respond with something self-depreciating about your weight, or say “I think I look fat.” Please, just say “thank you.”

If someone offers you dessert, don’t say that you have a reunion or wedding coming up and you want to “fit in your dress.” Teach your kids that making healthier choices is never just about looking good for an event.

If you go to the gym, tell your kids it’s to be strong and healthy. If you run, tell them it’s because you like to. If you deny some junk food in favor of a healthier option, tell them it’s because you’d rather eat something that makes you feel more energetic – not because it has “too many calories” or you “don’t have enough points.”

If other adults are talking about their weight in front of children, don’t join in. You don’t need to teach your kids it’s “bad” to talk about weight, but your kids are taking their cues from you about what’s important.

If you are offered cake at a child’s birthday party, please just say “yes” and enjoy it, or “no thank you.” Do not say ‘yes’, and then lament about how you “shouldn’t be eating it.” Likewise, don’t say ‘no’, and then add that it’s because you are on a diet. Let the kids enjoy the cake without hearing a lot of harmful background noise.

Don’t tell kids that they need to “put some meat on their bones.” Hearing talk of diets and weight loss, and also being told they are “too thin” is confusing to children – it makes them feel they need to be a perfect weight to be accepted.Some kids (and adults) are naturally skinny, and there is no need to make them self-conscious about their weight.

Please don’t tell a child that he/she is chubby, or anything similar, even if it’s in a seemingly innocent and joking way. There is no need to make them turn attention to their body shape, and one day they’ll learn that those words have negative connotations and be tempted to diet.

Don’t compliment your children for being thin or tell them they are “lucky” to be skinny. They will learn that thin is to be praised and they should aim to stay that way. This puts them at a high risk for dieting as they mature and naturally put on (healthy) weight.

Don’t criticize people for being overweight. There are overweight people in this world who have healthier lifestyles than you.

This doesn’t mean you can’t teach children about nutrition or what habits will lead to a healthy life. Talk to them about nourishment, eating to feel good, and playing outside for fun . Don’t worry that without all the weight loss talk, they will end up not caring about their weight and therefore become overweight. In fact the opposite is true – they will stay more in tune with their natural hunger and fullness, and their body will regulate itself quite well.

Modeling a healthy, balanced, and active lifestyle – while avoiding teaching your kid to “diet” and “control their weight” – actually gives them the best chance at maintaining a healthy weight for a lifetime.

* In this post and in my book, I’m referring to “dieting” as depriving the body of the calories it needs (in an attempt to lose weight). I’m not talking about changing eating habits to better nourish your body. If you make healthy lifestyle changes, it’s much better to focus on and talk about the other benefits you experience, rather than concentrating on weight loss.

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