Eating disorders, like many illnesses, arise from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While research is being conducted to understand the genetic contributions to these disorders, much is unknown.
Although there is currently no treatment that addresses a genetic predisposition for disordered eating, and people cannot change their genetic risks for developing eating disorders, there are things they can do to minimize the impact of those risks.
Prevention is about taking charge of the environment: creating environments in homes, schools, and communities that foster healthy nutrition and exercise, comfort with our bodies, and flexibility in our behaviors and attitudes. These types of influences can help to decrease the impact, or perhaps even the expression, of genetic risk for eating disorders.
What Parents Can Do
Parents, arguably the most important role models children have, can have a very positive influence on the development of healthy eating and body image. Parents who model healthy eating and moderate exercise, and who embrace their current physical appearance, can create a home environment that increases the likelihood of their children developing the same healthy behaviors.
Adults may find it helpful to step outside themselves and visualize what the children and adolescents around them see: what they eat, when they look in the mirror, and how often they exercise, for instance. Other strategies for parents include:
- Providing children with a wide variety and adequate amounts of nutritious foods
- Practicing moderate physical activity
- Modeling a balance between work and leisure
- Encouraging slow eating to increase awareness of hunger and fullness
- Emphasizing learning and personal growth from life experiences, not flawlessness
- Not using food as a reward
- Not giving children positive feedback for cleaning their plates
- Not creating battles about food
Parents whose children are involved in certain sports may wish to be especially proactive, as the cultures of some sports may increase the risk for development of disordered eating. It is important to note that sports themselves do not increase risk, but rather any environment in which unhealthy attitudes toward nutrition and self-acceptance are modeled.
Whether such attitudes are more prevalent in certain sports remains to be determined. However, some sports have a greater focus on body weight than others. For example:
- Solo endeavors in which there is no head-to-head competition, and performance is judged subjectively, such as gymnastics and ballet
- Endeavors for which weight loss may initially improve performance, such as long-distance running. Some people erroneously believe that if a small amount of weight loss is good, a lot must be better.
- Sports that require athletes to be divided into weight classes, such as wrestling
Parents concerned that their child may be at risk for developing disordered eating should speak with their child's physician, who can refer the child to a specialist if it is deemed necessary. Adults suffering from symptoms of disordered eating are urged to seek treatment.
Last reviewed on 1/28/10
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