Dr. Elayne Daniels

So let’s say a blockbuster movie featured a villain that siphoned over 3 million healthy life years from humanity every year. Who would be the protagonist? If that villain robbed its victims of quality of life, and even offspring, who would provide hope? (Stay with me, here. This really does have to do with how to prevent eating disorders!)

But what if you could be the protagonist in this real-life drama…simply by learning how to prevent eating disorders in future generations?

Sound dramatic?

Yes, it is.  Though not in a Hollywood-blockbuster, drama-for-the-sake-of-drama way.

It’s dramatic because it’s real. It’s intense, complicated, risky…and potentially (and too often) lethal.

If you intend to be the protagonist in your own life or in the life of someone you love, you need to know your enemy. 

In the case of eating disorders, you need to know:

  • what they are
  • what they’re not
  • what they can do
  • how they can start and perpetuate
  • how to recognize them
  • who is a potential victim
  • how to defeat them
  • how to prevent them

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.

What they are not is a mere “food issue.”

It’s not about the food! 

Food is the target, the vehicle, the “innocent enemy” — the means for acting out psychological issues. 

In many ways, food is as much a hostage in the eating-disorder disease as the person with the disorder.

Part of learning how to prevent eating disorders is learning how to recognize their signs and symptoms

Read here to learn more.

While eating disorders are most prevalent among females between 12 and 35, they can and do affect people of all genders and ages.

Types of eating disorders

There are many types of eating disorders. But the 5 most common are:

  1. anorexia nervosa (restricting type and binge-eating/purging type)
  2. bulimia nervosa
  3. binge eating disorder
  4. avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
  5. other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED)

How do eating disorders start?

Remember that eating disorders are complex. They are also, despite their characteristic typing, very individual. 

While their drama plays out through food, it is also intertwined with other factors like mood disorders, physical complications, and relationship and social effects.

A lot of focus has been placed on the influence of social media, exposure to unrealistic beauty standards, bullying, and that nemesis Diet Culture.

All merciless foes, to be sure.

In the battle of nature-vs.-nurture, body image is largely a product of nurture. 

We all have a relationship with our bodies. Isn’t it ironic that that “internal” relationship is so influenced and driven by external influences?

But research is shedding light on the underlying, predisposing influence of nature — ie genetics — when it comes to eating disorders. And the results have been astonishing.

For anorexia nervosa specifically, 50-60% of the risk of developing the disorder is hereditary.

Compare that to a 30% heritability for breast cancer and 40% for depression.

Keep in mind that those statistics reflect a genetic vulnerability to anorexia. They are not a prediction of occurrence, mortality, or treatability. 

However, if you’re going to learn how to prevent eating disorders for future generations, you need to know the whole picture. 

What, if any, is the inherent vulnerability that can’t be changed? And what are the external influences that can be changed or at least managed?

Tips on how to prevent eating disorders:

Prevention is too often a dollar short and a day late. There really are far too many things to stay in step with, let alone ahead of.

But some things, by their very nature and potential threat, warrant priority.

Understanding and preventing eating disorders is one of those things.

Even if you’re reading this because you or someone you love already has an eating disorder, it’s not too late to learn and take action. 

Prevention is always ideal. 

But treatment and recovery are always possible.

Here are 7 tips on how to prevent eating disorders in future generations:

  1. Know the enemy.

    And food is not the enemy!

    Unlike non-food-related addictions and disorders, eating disorders manipulate a substance that is necessary for survival: food. 

Eating disorders are psychological in nature. They are a mental health issue, not a skinny/fat, good foods/bad foods, willpower/weakness issue.

They’re an equal-opportunity destroyer. Wealth won’t protect you. Race won’t protect you. Religion won’t protect you. Even gender and age won’t protect you.

  1. Educate yourself on eating disorders and their burden on the sufferer and society.

    This article opened with a hypothetical villain who could strip away over 3 million healthy life years from humanity every year. That same villain could infiltrate every aspect of its victims’ lives – physical, mental, emotional, relational, professional, financial, even reproductive.

    That villain exists in real life in the form of eating disorders. And those under its power have a significantly increased risk of diminished quality of life…and loss of life altogether.

For example, young people between 15 and 24 with anorexia nervosa have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their same-aged peers. And males, who make up 25% of those with anorexia, have an even higher risk of death.

The message here, especially if you are a parent, is to get real about the dangers of eating disorders.

  1. Know the early warning signs of an eating disorder.

    One of the biggest mistakes parents can make when it comes to their children is to take a “not my child” blind eye.
    My child is a good kid.
    S/he gets good grades.
    My child makes good choices.
    My child has good friends.
    S/he doesn’t have any reason to be depressed.
    My child is pretty/handsome/popular.

    You don’t have to hover over or micro-parent your child to be attentive to subtle shifts in attitudes, moods, and behaviors.

    The key, of course, is to have a safe, open communication system from the beginning. As in, does your child trust you? Do you listen without judgment? Do you model safe emotional expression and work to develop emotional intelligence?

    If so, it will come naturally for you to discuss things your child is seeing on social media. You will naturally discuss what’s happening in your child’s world and how your child feels about herself.

    You will also have a reliable context in which to detect and respond to the early warning signs of an eating disorder.
  2. Don’t make weight/body-centric comments about your child or other people.

    Don’t think you can get away with not commenting on a change in your child’s weight while commenting on other people. The translation will always be, “I wonder what she thinks about ME? What would she say about me if I gained weight or didn’t look perfect all the time?”

    Remember, children pay attention to everything. And, especially as they become teenagers and struggle to balance physical maturing with emotional immaturity, they translate everything to themselves.

    This is just one more reason to make sure your own attitudes are genuine, consistent, and grounded in the non-physical qualities of who a person is.
  3. Encourage sports, play, and the enjoyment of nature.

    Preventing eating disorders doesn’t have to be solely about a “focus” on them. It can also be about creating and modeling a life of well-being through healthy relationships and activities that provide joy, exercise, and personal accomplishment.

    The inherent message is that physical activity in the form of sports, play, and enjoying nature teems with benefits. And participating in those activities isn’t about losing weight or looking “perfect.”

    Keep in mind, however, that some sports like wrestling and gymnastics have a history of being weight-focused.

    As a parent, you can both encourage participation in sports and help protect your child from eating disorders.

    For instance, know the coaches and governing bodies in charge. And make sure their attitudes prioritize their athletes as happy, healthy kids first, athletes second.

    If you haven’t yet seen the infectious-energy video of UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, you’re missing a real treat.

    But what’s behind that infectious energy is a story that wasn’t (at first) a happy one…and a coach who had to change herself before she could help her athletes be their best.

    Watch their triumphant story here.
  4. Know that there is help for eating disorders, and know where to get it.

    The positive message regarding eating disorders is that they are both preventable and treatable.

    When it comes to treatment, it’s important to know when inpatient treatment is required.
  5. Examine your attitude about your own body.

    Children learn what they live. So the proverb goes.

    They also learn by osmosis. So life goes.

    They learn to speak by listening to you. They learn how to eat, play, brush their teeth, dress themselves, and express themselves by watching you.

    How can you expect them to learn only what you want them to learn when their formative process is to absorb and respond to everything?

    You may look at your little one and see only heavenly perfection. But if you look in the mirror and see only things you don’t like, what do you think your child will learn?

    If you reach down and pinch your waist…or have a tape measure sitting on your bathroom counter…what’s your message?

    If you weigh yourself in front of your child and then lament under your breath…what’s your message?

    If you combine all your body-conscious evaluations with adjustments to your eating…what’s your message?

    How can you tell your little girl that she is beautiful just as she is if you have a plastic surgery brochure on your table? Or have procedures done to deceive her perception of how bodies look as they grow and age?

    You can’t fake this stuff. Kids are like animals that can tell a tsunami is on the way days ahead of time. They notice everything.

    As a matter of fact, if you have a child who is highly sensitive, s/he is much more likely to develop an eating disorder. And the ability to pick up on the subtleties in her/his environment (including your attitudes and behaviors) is one of the reasons.

    (And dads, don’t think you’re not included in this. Not only is your attitude toward your own body important. But your attitude toward your wife’s body delivers an extremely loud message, especially during pregnancy and after childbirth.)

Even if inpatient treatment isn’t warranted, it’s important that outpatient providers be specialized in eating disorders, not just trained in them.

If you need help finding resources, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) can help. 

If you follow this blog, you know the complexities of eating disorders. There are many types, all with potential overlaps and complications. In a word, eating disorders are individual.

They do, however, have a long list of predictable and well-researched signs and symptoms. 

And that means, if we do our homework, we can all learn how to prevent eating disorders for the next generation.

To read more about Disordered Eating, check out more blogs here.

Dr. Elayne Daniels is an anti-diet, Intuitive Eating-certified psychologist, consultant, coach, and author specializing in eating disorders. She is passionate about helping people, especially HSPs, of all ages and genders recover and truly live their lives.

Contact her here to learn more. And, if you’re struggling with overcoming an eating disorder, this e-book might be useful.

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