How Can We Encourage Healthy Body Image — and Prevent an Eating Disorder?

As a mom to two daughters (and a boy! He counts too!), I’m keenly aware of body image and the words I use when it comes to working out and what we eat. They know there are sometimes foods that are special treats but that aren’t off limits. They know I work out to be strong. They’ve never heard me beat myself up for having a few extra pounds on me — or for having a treat. They’ve never heard me utter the word “skinny.” And they are, so far, very, very, very comfortable in their little bodies. Maybe too comfortable at times. I’d love this confidence to remain though; that innocent feeling of being so comfortable in your skin.

Then I see stupid stuff online and know that my influence, while strong, will be mixed with other subtle messages. Girls bragging about thigh gaps and not eating. Girls seeing if they can fit behind paper. That’s now a (really stupid) thing?

We all want our kiddos to have healthy relationships with exercise and food and body image, but not everyone does. To that end, I’ve asked Anna Vinter, M.D., a few important questions about eating disorders and what parents can do to support healthy body image in their kids. Dr. Vinter is a psychiatrist and certified eating disorder specialist, and she’s the Medical Director and adult psychiatrist for Eating Recovery Center, California’s Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Programs. Here’s what she had to say about eating disorder warning signs and prevention.

Eating Disorder 101

eating disorder

What are some eating disorder warning signs parents can watch for? 

– Significant changes in weight (up or down)
– Obsession with weight and intense fear of gaining weight
– Fear of eating in public, with others
– Withdrawal from regular eating patterns (e.g. won’t eat with family or friends anymore; only eating alone)
– Changes in dietary habits, new/fad diets, cutting out entire food groups
– Going to the bathroom or disappearing immediately after meals
– Finding food missing, hidden food or wrappers
– Seeing evidence of vomit
– Hiding weight loss or change in body shape in baggy clothes
– Loss of or change in menstrual cycle
– Excessive exercise
– Increasingly rigid routines and increasing distress when routines are broken
– Mood swings, uncharacteristic irritability; conversely, lack of emotion, flat mood

What is the first step a parent should take if an eating disorder is suspected? What to do depends on the age of the child. A generally useful strategy is to calmly explain that you are concerned about the child’s health and eating behavior and then take the child for a medical visit and an evaluation by an eating disorder specialist. The sooner an eating disorder is identified and treated, the better the chance of full and sustained recovery. Parents will benefit from educating themselves about eating disorders as well.

What are some good resources for more information for parents and those suffering from eating disorders? NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) is always an excellent source of information. Their Parent Toolkit is a great resource.

What can parents do to encourage healthy body image in their kids?
– Help your child discover all the things she can do with her body that she can enjoy and be proud of.
– Create a family environment that is not weight- or appearance-focused, but instead treasures deeper values and qualities of each family member.
– Work on your own self-esteem and body image and lead by example. Children learn through imitation and observation.
– Teach principles of intuitive eating from a young age. (Listen to your body. Are you truly hungry? Eat what you really want to eat, and enjoy it. Then notice when you are feeling full and have had enough to eat, and finish eating.)

Do you think the rise of social media and “thinspo” contribute to eating disorders? How can that be avoided? The relationship between social media, including Pro-ANA, Pro-MIA, “thinspo,” but also more conventional media portraying the thin ideal, and eating disorders is a complicated one. There is no single cause of eating disorders. But studies show a correlation between exposure to media and increased body dissatisfaction, and in turn a correlation between body dissatisfaction to disordered eating for some people. Teaching people to be savvy consumers of media may help negate some of these effects. But prevention is more likely to be useful earlier on, by helping younger children develop healthy relationships with food and their bodies.

Thanks to Dr. Vinter for answering our questions. Looks like my job for now is to keep doing what I’ve been doing!Erin

FTC disclosure: We often receive products from companies to review. All thoughts and opinions are always entirely our own. Unless otherwise stated, we have received no compensation for our review and the content is purely editorial. Affiliate links may be included. If you purchase something through one of those links we may receive a small commission. Thanks for your support!


Add a comment
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment
  1. I always encourage hard work to exercise and eat healthily since childhood. Because I started to care about my health quite late, I didn’t want it to repeat at my child. Thanks for sharing.