You're Probably Already Doing The Most Important Thing To Prevent Food Issues In Kids

Many of us grew up watching our parents try out diet after diet, hearing them talk about “cheat days” and “naughty foods,” and perhaps even seeing posters of “good” and “bad” foods on the inside of the pantry. All of us want to avoid passing on food issues to our children. For National Eating Disorders Association Awareness Week, Romper spoke with CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association Claire Mysko about how to set our kids up for a positive relationship with eating and their bodies.

“We are surrounded by these messages. We live in a culture where there is constant talk about dieting,” Mysko says. “For parents I think it’s important to talk about food and eating and body image in a holistic way. When we are talking about health and eating. ‘What foods make your body feel good?’ or, ‘What gives you strength?’ [and] really avoiding categorizing foods as good foods and bad foods.”

NEDA hears from parents and people in recovery who cite school nutrition programs as a trigger point for them. The focus on obesity prevention, labeling foods as good and bad, can affect the mindset of children. It’s no small problem: 30 million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to NEDA.

Sharing meals with your kids allows you to model healthy behaviors around food.

Eating disorders affect men and women, people of all ages, sizes, and races. They affect people of all socioeconomic statuses. Eating disorders are also broader than just anorexia and bulimia. Claire shares that a broad range of behaviors fit the definition of an eating disorder. Binge eating is more common than both anorexia and bulimia combined, but was only recently recognized as a disorder in 2013 when it was added to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. There’s also a slew of other food- and body-related behaviors that don’t fit any category but are significantly impacting the lives and physical health of individuals. One of the newer diagnoses that NEDA is assisting with is ARFID, or avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Beyond typical “picky eating,” this restrictive disorder limits types of food so severely that it negatively impacts growth and body functions.

NEDA wants to focus on positive body image and relationships with food, and ensure that there are evidence-based programs available for kids that are at risk for eating disorders, with legislation slated to add such programs under the USDA grant program.

Another protective factor against eating disorders? Sitting down to meals with your kids. Mysko explains that sharing meals with your kids allows you to model healthy behaviors around food. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Public Nutrition found that shared mealtimes were associated with more nutritious eating in young adults over a 10-year period.

Having open conversations with your kids, helping them become in tune with their bodies and how different foods make them feel. If hey are eating junk all day, they aren’t going to feel good. Give kids a message around variety, everyday foods/sometimes foods, some grains, some proteins, eating a rainbow of food. Restricted foods become more appealing to kids- and especially for kids already prone to binging or restricting, this “off-limits” message or demonizing certain types of foods can be particularly dangerous.

Mysko also recommends that we start talking to our kids about the messages they see on screens and in media. “As soon as they get in front of a screen, they are bombarded with constant images — filters, photoshopped pictures. This isn’t reality.”

National Eating Disorder Organization CEO Claire Mysko with her daughter, center, at a NEDA walk in 2017. Photo courtesy of Claire Mysko.

That’s why for National Eating Disorders Association Awareness Week, NEDA is confronting all these toxic messages head-on with their “Come as you are” social media campaign. Participants are encouraged to take the Body Acceptance Challenge and pledge to reject diet culture. An Instagram campaign will focus on celebrating all bodies with the tags #Comeasyouare and #NEDAawareness. Mysko and her organization hope that the flood of positive images will help people at all stages of their journey in recovery to feel fully accepted in the NEDA family. They hope it will bring to light all of these issues that are so widespread, yet so often stigmatized or silenced.

More than anything else, we need to teach our children to accept themselves and others just as they are by modeling that behavior ourselves.

NEDA is also piloting a community-based confident body program in New York City that has has great outcomes in Australia. “Confident Body, Confident Child” helps parents navigate the messages coming from the larger culture and equips them with parenting tools. The pilot program will help impart the messages to kids that there are a range of bodies that exist naturally, and to accept all body types. While there is an overall lack of literature on body positivity for young children, Mysko recommends the book Shapesville for imparting the messages to kids that bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Mysko urges parents to realize that “acceptance is critical.” More than anything else, we need to teach our children to accept themselves and others just as they are by modeling that behavior ourselves.

“We often hear from people who have waited a long time for help,” says Mysko. The good news is that the next generation can be better equipped to navigate body image and food if they have a parent who cares sitting at the table with them.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.