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10 Tips to Teach Your Daughter About a Healthy Relationship with Food
Teaching healthy eating habits and helping to foster a positive body image could spare your daughter from an eating disorder and low self-esteem.
1. Ditch the diet discussions. “It should all be about healthy eating, not weight loss,” says Elizabeth Alderman, M.D. a pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center. Convey the importance of “inner beauty, not just how you look [on the outside].” Parents: Consider ditching the family scale. “Do I think that scales are helpful in a house? No,” says Peebles. No one needs to see that they weigh 124 versus 128 pounds on a given day, she says.
2. Send the right message. Keep the focus on being healthy, says Delia Aldridge, M.D., service director of the eating disorders and self-injury program at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, Ill. At family dinners, serve and consume moderate portions. Take a healthy attitude toward food and physical activity. Incorporate some physical activity into your regular routine. After a meal, take a walk together.
3. Don’t disparage your body—or anyone else’s. Don’t tell fat jokes. And nix questions like, “’Do these pants make my butt look fat?’” says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., psychology professor and author of Emotional Eating. Though comments like “you’re just a little above the average weight”, won’t cause an eating disorder, it could trigger its onset, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
4. Listen for, and address, unusual body-related comments. When your daughters complain about being fat or ugly, instead of saying, “don’t be silly,” ask, “You’re talking about this a lot. What are the things that you’re worried about?” says psychologist Stephanie Zerwas, Ph.D., associate research director in the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina. She suggests a response: “Honey, you know I think you’re beautiful, and I’m not just saying it because I’m your mother. But I want you to know that beautiful people come in all shapes and sizes….I think you’re beautiful on the inside and out. Can you think about another way to evaluate yourself than the number you see on a scale?” Avoid critiquing your child’s appearance, and instead, reassure them about all their strengths, says Peebles. “I’d prefer that parents aren’t judging kids for their weight.” Kids who gripe about being fat may be imitating their moms.
5. Watch for strange or restrictive eating habits. If your daughter insists on making all her own food, something could be going on. “Anything with the word fat in it, I didn’t want to eat,” says Kristin Kaye, now 21, who developed anorexia at 15. “I prepared myself very plain stuff. I was very afraid that if someone else prepared the food for me, they would sneak something else in it.” What to do? “Cheerlead for cooking together!” says Bulik. “We are really encouraging parents and children working together in the kitchen.” June Alexander, a 59-year-old grandmother who struggled with anorexia, and subsequently bulimia, from age 11 to age 55, says she often shunned food until after 6 p.m. The coauthor of My Kid Is Back: Empowering Parents to Beat Anorexia Nervosa worried that if she ate earlier in the day she would be unable to control herself and would eat too much.
6. Foster a healthy, realistic body image. Help your daughter understand that many of the photos she sees in magazines are airbrushed. Show her real images. Help her develop a sense of what is normal. “Kids don’t know these have been retouched,” says Peebles, who recommends Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s book, I’m, Like, So Fat!: Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World. Britney Spears just released unretouched photos of her Candies ads, which reveal larger thighs and (gasp!) cellulite. Talk to your daughter about all the imperfections (moles and the like) that are removed rather than just discussing thinness. “Focus on everything that is duping you into believing that perfection exists,” says Bulik.
7. Don’t outlaw certain foods. “The minute you start throwing ‘taboo’ labels on things, they become more desirable,” says Bulik. Encourage moderation instead of deprivation. Enjoy birthday party cake and summer nights getting ice cream without guilt, says Bulik. “It’s best not to say, ‘well have cake tonight, then cut back tomorrow,’ or ‘today treats, tomorrow diet.’” But dish out appropriate amounts of these sweets—and model eating moderate (not super size!) portion sizes yourself. “Be a healthy eating model,” says Peebles. “Have lots of healthy food available in the house. Prepare fresh food.” Don’t condemn brownies as “the devil’s food,” says Peebles. But don’t keep a plate of them around every day. What’s most important: show your child you are active, and you eat well, says Peebles.
8. Look at your kids’ Web browsing history. A 2006 Stanford University study found that 96 percent of girls who already had eating disorders and visited pro-anorexia sites said they learned new weight-loss techniques which they used. “I don’t know that you can block all of those web sites because new ones crop up every day,” says Peebles, the lead author of that study. “[But] I think you need to really discuss the internet and monitor it.” Talk to your kids about how some information on the internet is “not true and not useful,” says Peebles. “I would advocate open dialogue.”
9. Act on your suspicions to nip eating disorders in the bud. “Early detection and early complete treatment is the key,” says Bulik. “Parents should not wait and think that ‘she’s just going through a phase or a fad.’” Don’t wait. “There is no shame in asking questions, raising concerns, calibrating your worries with a professional,” says Bulik. When a 14-year-old shows up weighing 60 pounds—or 220 pounds—the road to recovery is more difficult.
10. Don’t worry too much. “To develop anorexia nervosa is like a very complicated recipe for a cake you try to bake,” says psychologist Daniel Le Grange, Ph.D., director of the eating disorders program at the University of Chicago. “Every single ingredient has to be there, in a certain amount of time and in a certain order.” You can try to prevent that perfect recipe. Remember that anorexia is surprisingly rare. Less than 1 percent of adolescent girls suffer from anorexia. And happy endings do occur: studies show that 30 percent to 70 percent of anorexics recover completely.
Kaye, now a 21-year-old psychology major at Wheaton College, conquered her anorexia, in her case with the help of a newfound spirituality. Today she competes nationally in ballroom dancing and gives presentations about eating disorders. “I don’t want anybody to have to go through those days of being hopeless and isolated and depressed, and I never want to go back there.”