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Change attitude, behavior to prevent eating disorders

By Keryn B. Page

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Most people ignore eating disorders until a celebrity, close friend or relative falls victim. Awareness is an important first step in reducing this physical and emotional threat before it is too late.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia affect as many as 10 million women and girls and 1 million men and boys in the United States. The serious health consequences of an eating disorder include osteoporosis, gastric ruptures, tooth decay, heart or kidney failure and death. Contributing factors range from cultural pressures that glorify thinness to low self-esteem and depression.

"It's hard to say what causes a person to develop an eating disorder, but research indicates it can be a combination of psychological, interpersonal and social factors," said Louise Davis, a Mississippi State University Extension Service professor of child and family development. "Our hope is that awareness of the problem and intervention in the pre-teen and teen years will help children overcome eating disorders."

Parents have a significant role in preventing disordered eating because children learn their attitudes and behaviors about food from their families. Parents should strive to accept people for who they are rather than for their body size.

"Children may not realize that people come in all shapes and sizes. The people they see on television are always thin and tall, so they strive to meet that goal," Davis explained. "In fact, adults also have trouble accepting the fact that what they see in the media is not reality. Even if we recognize that television and movies distort our view of the perfect body, it's very difficult to overcome what society considers the norm."

Parents should analyze their feelings about their own bodies and realize that these beliefs have been shaped by cultural forces. The National Eating Disorders Association offers a wealth of other information for parents on its Web site. Tips include:

Teach children about the natural diversity of human body shapes and sizes.

Teach children to avoid teasing others about being too fat, too thin, too short, too tall or about any other trait.

Learn about and discuss with children the dangers of trying to alter body shape through dieting, the value of moderate exercise for health and the importance of eating a variety of foods in well-balanced meals consumed at least three times a day. Be a good role model in regard to sensible eating, exercise and self-acceptance.

Help children resist the ways in which television, magazines and other media imply that a slender body means power, excitement, popularity or perfection.

Sylvia Byrd, an MSU associate professor of food and nutrition, said parents and children should take the emphasis off of weight and counting calories, fat grams and carbohydrates.

"Remember that no foods are good or bad -- all foods can fit into a healthy diet. The key is moderation," Byrd said. "Eat when you're hungry, but don't overeat or eat just because you're bored or upset. The same is true for exercise: do it for the joy of feeling your body move and grow stronger, not to compensate for fat or calories consumed."

There's a fine line between encouraging a child to eat healthy foods and be physically active -- the recipe for avoiding weight problems -- and pushing them so far that they develop eating disorders. Byrd said young people ages 2 to 20 should not use body mass index and other weight calculators because these are designed for adults.

"It is unrealistic to expect all children to be at an ideal weight range, and it can lead to eating disorders," Byrd explained. "Parents should help children maintain a healthy weight -- this is the weight their bodies naturally adopt with healthy eating habits and appropriate physical activity."

Regarding adults, Byrd said rather than setting a goal to lose a certain number of pounds, try losing 10 percent of total body weight. Try to consume 100 fewer calories each day, and look for ways to burn an extra 100 calories throughout the day -- for instance, by walking 2,000 steps, the equivalent of about one mile.

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Released: July 15, 2004
Contact: Dr. Louise Davis, (662) 325-3083
, Dr. Sylvia Byrd, (662) 325-3200

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