Those who are diagnosed with eating disorders may have a combination of factors that create “the perfect storm” for these illnesses to develop. This may include one’s individual traits like genes, psychological make up (depression, anxiety, OCD) plus external factors such as cultural cues, dieting/social pressure, a “perceived pressure for thinness,” and body dissatisfaction. But parents can take actions to minimize risk factors for the development of an eating disorder in their child. Providing protective factors in the home might sound easy, but it is not simple, given the widespread effects of diet culture.
By: Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CEDRD-S & Signe Darpinian, LMFT, CEDS-S
Tips for Body-Positive Parenting
1. Use an “All Foods Fit” Mindset
Polarizing foods (talking about “good foods and bad foods”) disconnects us from our body’s true wisdom. Categorizing foods this way indirectly reinforces messaging about dieting and losing weight. Talking about “fattening foods” is scientifically untrue. This language teaches kids to fear foods, to tiptoe around eating, and inherently gives the indirect message that fat is bad, and thin is good.
2. Avoid talking about dieting/weight loss at home
There is an epidemic now in schools where kids are obsessed about getting “6 pack abs,” “chiseled biceps” or are consumed with having a “thigh gap.” Unlike the latest trends in jeans, for example, these body craze trends can be deadly. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) states that young people between the ages of 15 and 24 with anorexia have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their same-aged peers.An eight year study, published in 2019, found that a primary risk factor for the development of an eating disorder is a “perceived pressure to be thin,” so this stress, is real and can have devastating consequences should an eating disorder develop. This focus on thinness starts early. A study looking at body image development, showed that even by age 6, young girls are already preoccupied with their weight and shape. Body image dissatisfaction is common, develops early, and likely stems from a weight-obsessed society and dieting culture. Talking about weight loss and dieting can have devastating consequences.
3. Create a Judgment-Free House
Creating a house that is a judgment-free zone, also free of get-thin messages, allows kids to grow up more peacefully with their body regardless of what sized body they have. This is important, especially during adolescence, when kids may feel uncomfortable and confused by their changing bodies. Make home a place of “safety,” free of conversation about how your child’s body looks, should look, how you look, how your clothes fit, or how others looks, and free of thin-biases. Teach kids that “all bodies are good bodies,” and that if their body is bigger, or smaller, or changing sizes in any way, you will love them no matter what. But walking your talk is necessary. Kids have an incredible spidey sense and can sniff out any incongruencies in what we are saying and doing. If you want to raise kids who feel good about their bodies, then the belief system has to be real. When parents talk at the dinner table and comment about people’s weight and say, “Did you see __, he/she/them looks great!” that comment automatically glamorizes thinness, sending a message to kids that thinness is idealized and valued, and if the child wants to be praised and adored, s/he/them “should be” thin. Even saying things such as “no, that does not make you look fat,” stigmatizes fat, suggesting there is “something wrong” with a higher weight. Risk factors for the development of an eating disorder include the pressure to be thin, body image dissatisfaction, and dieting.
Realistically, you are not going to be able to keep your child from destructive messages from the culture or other kids, but you can build resilience within them as well as model the behaviors you want to grow in your home.
4. Teach kids about joyful movement
Exercising to burn calories, lose weight, or alter one’s appearance creates an unhealthy relationship with physical activity. Linking exercise to food intake in any way (“I ate so much today, so I’m going to go exercise”) teaches kids that they should compensate for food consumed with exercise, which is a dangerous and disturbing message, and over time, potentially can lead to the development of an eating disorder. There are many wonderful benefits of exercise on which parents instead can focus such as an improvement in: mood, energy, sleep, and stress relief. In fact, it is well documented that individuals who exercise for internal goals such as the way it feels, camaraderie, energy, stress relief are more likely to continue their habit of moving versus those who exercise based on external goals such as the pursuit of thinness.
Teaching kids that all foods can be incorporated into a healthy diet (that all “fare is fair”) and that exercise can be joyful and part of a healthy lifestyle will help to encourage a peaceful relationship to food/body. Eating in an attuned way, being mindful of how you speak about your body as well as others’, and reducing the risk factor of body image dissatisfaction (and a whole lot more) will provide protective factors against your child developing an eating disorder.
 Stice E, Ryzin MJV, A Prospective Test of the Temporal Sequencing of Risk Factor Emergence in the Dual Pathway Model of Eating Disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 128(2), Feb 2019, 119-128.
 Smolak, L. (2011). Body image development in childhood. In T. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention (2nd ed.).New York: Guilford.
Wendy Sterling, MS, RD, CSSD, CEDRD-S is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Approved Supervisor through the International Eating Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics in the Bay Area in California. She is the Team Nutritionist of the Oakland Athletics. She is the co-author of “How to Nourish Your Child Through an Eating Disorder” and “No Weigh! A Teens Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom.” Follow her on Instagram at @wendy_sterling and @platebyplateapproach or Twitter: @WendyMSRD. For more on her practice, check out her website at: www.sterlingnutrition.com.
Signe Darpinian, LMFT, CEDS-S is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Certified Eating Disorders Specialist and iaedp™-Approved Supervisor (CEDS S). She is a public speaker, co-author of No Weigh! A Teen’s Guide to Positive Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom, and host of Therapy Rocks! a personal growth podcast. With private practice offices in two California locations, she is able to service both the Central Valley Region as well as the San Francisco Bay Area.