Many women, men and children are impacted by eating disorders in the United States. Disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and OSFED, otherwise specified feeding or eating disorder, will affect 20 million women at some point in their lives. Studies have shown that new cases of eating disorders have been on the rise since 1950 and the rate of anorexia in female teens ages 15 to 19, has increased every decade since 1930.
Many factors influence the way young adults view their bodies and their relationship with food. While healthy body image and eating habits is often something discussed with tweens and teens, some studies show that by first grade many girls already report wanting to be thinner.
It’s never too early to help your daughter develop good nutrition habits and a healthy relationship with her body. “What I work on with women is helping them feel more committed and connected to themselves, helping them see that healthy choices will actually make them feel better, and knowing that you’re worthy and deserving of feeling good,” said Stephanie Mansour of Step it Up with Steph and a women’s weight loss and body image coach.
1 Model positive eating habits and body image
Mansour said leading by example is the first way mothers can help their children develop healthy eating habits and a positive body image. “Model a healthier body image and healthier relationship with food so a daughter isn’t hearing her mom constantly say, I’m going on a diet, or I shouldn’t eat this,” said Mansour. Instead, voice the positive benefits of eating healthy and working out. Something as simple as coming home from the gym and telling your kids how great working out makes you feel or complimenting yourself when you feel good in what you’re wearing, instead of criticizing your appearance, can go a long way in shaping your children’s relationships with their bodies and fitness and nutrition.
2 Acknowledge your own relationship with food
It’s important to know how you view food and what beliefs you hold around eating, body image and appearance when talking to your children about nutrition and health. “A lot of times when I’m working one-on-one with private weight loss clients they have these beliefs that were instilled in them when they were little,” said Mansour. She often asks clients how their parents talked to them about food and how their long-held beliefs about nutrition might be impacting them now. Acknowledging your history with food can help you determine what you want to teach your children about the topic and how you approach conversations with them.
3 Talk about the basics of good nutrition
Knowing when you’re hungry, why and when you need to eat is important for developing a healthy relationship with food. “If you haven’t eaten in over five hours, your body is craving sugar or carbs,” said Mansour. Keeping blood sugar levels stable throughout the day by eating every few hours will cut down on cravings, keep energy levels high and lessen the need to grab something sweet and sugary. Mansour has her clients eat a protein paired with at least one fruit or one vegetable every three to four hours. Parents can use this rule of thumb with their children to help keep them satisfied and not craving junk food.
4 Teach kids to look at food as fuel
It’s not uncommon for people to look at food as a reward and use junk food like cookies, cake or ice cream as a prize for performing well at work, acing a test or even eating all the veggies off our plates at dinner. Mansour suggests rewarding yourself, or your kids, with something other than food for a job well done. “Coming up with other things that your daughter likes to do, have, or talk about can be the reward instead of food,” said Mansour. A new workout top or running shoes make great alternative prizes.
5 Use media images as a learning experience
Mansour suggests flipping through magazines with your daughter and looking more analytically at the images inside and the messages they’re trying to send. Ask your daughter what she thinks an advertisement’s message is and what’s good or bad about it. Mansour said this activity also sparks creativity because you can help your daughter come up with a new message for the advertisement and envision how she would sell various products or ideas while keeping health and a positive body image in mind.
6 Cook together
Mansour encourages parents to remind kids that food, even healthy food, can be fun. Cooking together is a great way to make healthy eating exciting and helps families bond. Finding new recipes or healthier alternatives to ones you might already make can become a fun hobby for mothers and daughters. “Instead of mashed potatoes, make mashed cauliflower or instead of regular pizza crust, it’s the cauliflower crust,” said Mansour.
7 Teach self-love
It’s important to acknowledge all of your strengths and the things you love about yourself. Mansour teaches her clients to use affirmations to foster positive self-talk. She encourages women to put their hands on their hearts and think of one thing they love about themselves to develop greater confidence and self-acceptance. In addition, being aware of how you talk to yourself on a regular basis — whether you’re complimentary or critical — can help shift your mindset from a place of negativity to practicing self-love. “If you notice that you’re saying something negative about yourself either out loud or to yourself, stop in your tracks, acknowledge that you’re saying it, and then change it into something positive,” said Mansour.
Remember to keep the lines of communication flowing as your daughter ages and her body changes. Helping her develop healthy eating habits and self-confidence is crucial to her well-being as she continues to face all the challenges that life will bring. Eating disorders are serious. If you suspect your child is developing or has an eating disorder consult with a physician, psychologist, or counselor who is trained to help treat this condition.