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Eating disorders awareness - A "Must Know" for parents and teens

Eating disorders affect men and women, girls and boys, and are being found in younger and younger children. Even though we are constantly bombarded with skinny images supposedly representing a glamorous ideal, there are things we can do -- preventative measures all parents can take -- to keep our children safe.

It's not a "phase"
Don't make the mistake of passing off any eating disorder thinking it's just a way to get attention, or a phase they're going through. Behind eating disorders can be a complex array of emotional issues which can be caused by problems within the family, at school, etc. and need to be addressed and treated. These disorders are NOT just women's problems. Men are also affected by them and in addition to developing eating disorders, may also turn to steroids in their quest for their idea of the perfect body.

As a society we need to realize that comments about other people's physical build are forms of prejudice and produce feelings of inadequacy in those not of that shape. We need to be careful we don't place emphasis on being pretty, or handsome, or slim, or tall, or whatever.

Why is it even necessary to comment, "She's pretty?" How do you think other children who are not classified "pretty" would take such an innocent sounding remark? It is these types of things that we need to think about. Even a comment such as, "I can't go swimming until I lose weight -- I look too fat" is a no-no. Even if you truly feel that way, don't say it around your children.

Body image
Our entire society has a responsibility to stand up with integrity and denounce any institution or way of thinking or behaving that emphasizes importance on physical appearances. Plastic surgery should only be for helping those with severe disfigurement; instead, we see a parade of Barbie doll look-alikes, which is encouraged by the comments of those who openly express their approval of this not so natural or common body image.

While men grow old naturally, women are made to feel unworthy until they've had their face lifted and their body re-shaped under the surgeon's knife. Our daughters become walking Tupperware containers because a portion of society has decided they are not good enough unless they are a size 40DD. Our sons are taking dangerous steroids in the quest for a muscular form. None of this is natural and in this enlightened day and age should be unacceptable.

So how do we combat this? Well, we start with the family. We all want what's best for our children and loved ones, but we need to be careful that we don't place overdue emphasis on beauty and body shape. Starting with ourselves, we need to carefully examine our attitudes and beliefs and the resultant behaviors we exhibit when we consider weight, body shape, etc. We need to teach our children that all body shapes, large and small, are beautiful and natural, and show no prejudices or preferences for one or the other.

Our children learn from us and copy us
Even teasing a small child about their weight can be a dangerous move, because you are setting them up to be concerned with losing weight at an early age and placing an unhealthy emphasis on slimness. If your children indulge in teasing others about their weight, or being critical or judgmental about larger built children, you need to instill in them that this is wrong.

Then we need to educate them about the dangers of trying to achieve thinness through dieting. Teach them healthy eating habits from the start and encourage exercise as a fun and healthy activity. Don't label foods as good or bad, fattening, etc. Rather, teach your children about all things in moderation.

Encourage your children to eat when they are hungry and to stop when they are full. Don't insist they "clean their plate." Offer small servings and let it be known they can have more if they're still hungry. Encourage them to eat their food slowly. Don't let them eat with distractions such as the TV. They should eat their food slowly and deliberately. And never use food as a form of reward or punishment.

Explain to your children about the ways the media, TV and magazines and that they do not represent the truth about the human body. You could even try saying that thin models of a certain height and size are chosen simply because the fashion designers make the clothes they want to show in that parade a certain size and it needs to be able to fit whichever model on the day is going to wear it -- it's a convenience thing, not a "thin is better" thing.

Don't talk about weight issues and diets around your children and never feed them foods that are low in calories unless specifically advised by your family health practitioner for health reasons.

Inner beauty
Teach your children to value the "inner" qualities of people and not the "outer." Sons need to be taught to appreciate women in ways that do not imply they are on the planet for their pleasure. Think about it -- is it really natural and healthy to be so obsessed with aspects of naked people?

Fathers can help their daughters by boosting their self-esteem and self-image, complimenting them regardless of their size or shape, and pointing out that not everyone likes skinny Barbie types -- everyone likes different things which is why we are all made in so many different varieties! You can liken it to the candy store -- how would they feel walking into a candy store and every single candy was exactly the same type, shape, color and flavor? We appreciate different candies and we need to learn to appreciate different body shapes!

Promote a healthy self-esteem and healthy self-image in your children. Happy children are less prone to fall victim to eating disorders, which can also come about if they are depressed or unhappy.

Signs to look out for with the various common eating disorders:

Anorexia nervosa

  • An obsession with losing weight and a fear of becoming or being fat.
  • Considering themselves fat even when they've lost considerable weight.
  • Refusing to eat healthily and "normally" -- an obsession with diets and restricted food intake.
  • A fixation on their body shape and appearance.
  • Dramatic loss of weight.
  • Constantly saying they are not hungry, or development of unusual food rituals.
  • Excuses for being absent at mealtimes.
  • Sudden and excessive interest in rigid exercise.
  • Any change in behavior or attitude that is accompanied with an obsession with losing weight and dieting and being thin.

Binge eating
Many people who suffer from this disorder have a history of depression, and often express feelings of shame and guilt over their binge habit. Binge eating affects those who can be either of normal weight, or are overweight.

  • Watch out for when your child consumes large volumes of food in a short period of time on a regular basis even when they are not hungry.
  • They can eat large quantities of food very quickly without even really tasting it or taking much notice in what it is they are eating.
  • Appearing to be out of control during these eating frenzies.
  • Eating alone or eating secretly. You may find evidence of this by large amounts of food disappearing, finding wrappers hidden away.

Bulimia nervosa
Characterized by eating large volumes of food in a short space of time, quite often secretly, and again, this has nothing to do with feeling hungry, and a sense of being out of control during these eating episodes.

These binge eating episodes are followed by forcing oneself to vomit up the food again, or use laxatives, go to the other extreme of fasting, or sudden exercise frenzy -- anything to counteract the effect of the calories just consumed.

  • Again, sufferers have an obsession with body weight and shape.
  • Watch out for evidence that your child may be trying to rid themselves of the food they've just eaten. Do they frequent the bathroom after eating meals or snacks and is there any sign, smell etc. that they may have vomited? Have you found any laxatives hidden in their room?
  • After meals do they participate in extreme exercise regardless of the weather or their condition (if they're tired, ill or injured, this is not a deterrent for them.)
  • Look out for swelling of the cheeks or jaw area.
  • As with binge eaters, bulimia suffers tend to withdraw from their usual social circles and friends, and design their life around their eating and purging episodes.
  • They also have an unhealthy obsession with losing weight and may have a distorted self-image.

Provide healthy foods
If you do have an obese child and you are trying to get them onto a healthier eating plan, don't make a big deal of it and don't use the word diet.

In fact, why say anything about it? Just change their usual fattening food choices to healthier food choices. Instead of keeping candy bars and biscuits in the cupboard, stock up on fruits.

Instead of saying things like, "you can't eat so much candy because it's fattening", say something like "you shouldn't eat so much candy because the high sugar content is bad for your teeth" -- divert the emphasis away from dieting and weight matters.

Finally, seek professional advice and help if you suspect your children are suffering an eating disorder.

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