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Written by Joyce Wong, registered dietitian, public health

Encouraging your child to build a healthy body image

07/02/2018 9:17:49 AM | 0 comments |
The first week of February marks B.C.’s Provincial Pediatric Eating Disorder Awareness Week campaign, titled, Love our bodies, Love ourselves. The campaign is designed to help families help their children develop a healthy body image and foster a resilient sense of self. In recognition of this campaign, I’d like to help parents understand the different forms of disordered eating and share some tips for what you as a parent or guardian can do to support your family to have a healthy relationship with food. 

What’s the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder?

Disordered eating is made up of behaviours that include but are not limited to: Weight and body preoccupation, yo-yo dieting, fasting or restricting food, compulsive overeating, and purging. Disordered eating may lead to an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. Eating disorders are very serious and require treatment from doctors and mental health professionals.

Why are children and youth affected?

Children receive messages from media, friends and sometimes even family members that in order to be accepted, happy, and successful, they have to be thin. This message is so prevalent that the majority of ten year olds are afraid of being fat regardless of whether they are or not and 98 per cent of girls report being unhappy with their bodies. Fear and unhappiness with their body may lead a child to feel negatively about food which in turn may lead to disordered eating behavior or even an eating disorder.

What is a healthy body image and eating pattern?

This is when a child has confidence in their body and has a relaxed, healthy relationship with food. Someone with a healthy body image feels comfortable with their body and accepts the way they look. This encourages healthy eating behaviours, fun physical activity, paying attention to the body, taking care of yourself, good self-esteem and body confidence.

How to promote healthy body image and eating pattern

Growing up is hard. High numbers of children – especially girls – experience disordered eating and/or struggle with an unhealthy body image. Parents and caregivers have a major role to play in prevention. As parents, we should be aware that what we say and how we feel about our own appearance, weight, body shape and diet, may influence our child’s outlook on these same things. Listening to your child and being supportive can go a long way in promoting a healthy body image and positive self-esteem. It’s never too late to start.
 
  • Lead by example: Eat a variety of foods and be active for fun and good health. 
  • Eat together as a family. Family meals are the single most important defense against disordered eating. For more tips on family meals, visit Bettertogetherbc.ca.
  • Teach your child about mindful eating: eating when hungry and stopping when full. 
  • Talk about enjoying food and its health benefits. Do not use food to bribe, reward or punish your child.
  • Encourage your child to help you plan and cook meals. This helps your child develop skills they’ll use for a lifetime. 
  • Stock your fridge with healthy foods like washed and ready-to-eat fruits, vegetables. Avoid talking about foods as ‘good or bad,’ ‘sinful or cleansing’, ‘junk or healthy.’ There is no need to feel guilty about the occasional treat. 
  • Emphasize your child’s inner value over their outer appearance:  qualities like kindness, honesty, thoughtfulness, and patience, as well as their interests in music or animals etc. Speak much more about who they are than what they look like.
  • Encourage your child to value diversity in other people’s appearance. Avoid making comments about people’s weight, body shape or size including your own, and instead talk about healthy living as a family. 
  • Encourage your child to think critically about media messages. Ask your child questions about what they’ve seen and help them talk about it. Check MediaSmarts for more ideas on how to develop critical thinking and media literacy. 

Seeking help

Spotting problems early may help prevent eating disorders later on. If you are worried that your child has low self-esteem or a negative body image, or you believe they may be showing signs of disordered eating, there is help available. Connect with Fraser Health’s Eating Disorders Program for more information. Give your child the gift of a healthy body image and eating pattern. It’s a gift that you can give for life.

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