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Home / News and Events / Health Tips / Prevent 'disordered eating'
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Prevent 'disordered eating'

Reviewed By: Todd Callahan, M.D., Adolescent Medicine (Last Updated: February 17, 2010)

Parents concerned about the potential for eating disorders in their children should first learn about "disordered eating." Todd Callahan, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, says a good time to learn about disordered eating is during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

"The emergence of disordered eating is critical. It can begin very early in adolescence as preteens begin planning their own meals and taking more ownership over their eating habits," Callahan said.

By late adolescence, it is estimated that as much as 56 percent of girls and nearly 40 percent of boys engage in disordered eating. But adolescence coincides with a peak in nutritional needs to complete development of the brain, bones, and other body systems.

While behaviors associated with anorexia and bulimia are familiar to many parents, disordered eating includes a wide variety of eating and weight control behaviors including chronic caloric restriction, compulsive eating, irregular or chaotic eating behaviors, and recurrent dieting.

Callahan said that listing dieting as a form disordered eating surprises many parents who think of diets as a normal part of life. He says these views are easy to form because our culture normalizes a disordered view of eating and self-image.

"It may be very difficult to change how we feel about our own bodies, but we can certainly change what we say about them in front of our children," Callahan said.

The good news is that disordered eating, if identified early, can be guided into healthier habits, potentially reducing the risk of developing true eating disorders.

A recent review article in the Journal of Adolescent Health (2009) listed five recommendations for health care providers to use when working with adolescents and their families. Callahan interpreted those recommendations for parents:

  1. Focus on healthy eating habits at home. Let children know dieting doesn't work and might even lead to weight gain.
  2. Have a "zero tolerance" policy in your home for negative comments about the body or weight-based teasing.
  3. Make family meals fun times to share with each other.
  4. Set the example: talk less about what children should do, and show them how they can be more active and eat better.
  5. Teach children that "weightism" is like any other form of social mistreatment, like sexism or racism. Let them know they share responsibility to reduce this.

"The best defense we may have is to eat family meals with our adolescents and model proper behaviors," Callahan said.

He said family dinners also allow parents to filter other messages adolescents may hear about food, and actually see how an adolescent is eating.

Related information in our health library: Eating Disorders

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