Adolescence is a transformative time in life – a period of rapid physical change, mental development and self-discovery.
With these changes comes a growing awareness of body image. This is a natural part of adolescent development, but images projected in advertising or social media can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with body size and shape.
As a result, surveys show that half of girls and a quarter of boys are unsatisfied with their bodies. An August 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, however, gives both pediatricians and parents new strategies for helping tweens and teens learn to have a positive perspective on their bodies and physical development.
It may come as a surprise that childhood obesity and the development of eating disorders go hand in hand. Childhood obesity rates have been rising in the United States, increasing the risk of obesity in adulthood.
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While those risks are real, it’s important to remember that obesity prevention, if not approached appropriately, can lead to eating disorders.
Obesity ranks as the most common chronic condition in childhood, followed by asthma, with eating disorders close behind.
Although eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are more prevalent among girls, boys are not immune. Rates of eating disorders have been rising in younger children between the ages of 5 and 12, as well as among boys.
It is not uncommon to develop poor eating behaviors in an effort to be “healthy.” A desire to drop a few pounds by dieting can become a risk factor for both obesity and eating disorders when meal-skipping leads to binging.
Eating disorders can have both physical and social implications. A preoccupation with body weight and rapid weight loss can lead to social isolation and difficulty concentrating as well as malnutrition, hypothermia, hypotension, pancreatitis and gallstone formation.
There are steps you can take to help your child develop healthy eating behaviors and a positive self-image:
▪ Promote a healthy lifestyle. Focus on making healthy food choices, including a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, and staying active. Encourage your kids to choose water or milk over sugary drinks and nutritious snacks instead of chips or sweets. Teach them that calories are not a bad thing, but rather are the necessary energy to support a growing and developing body. Teenage girls need an average of 1,800 calories a day; boys need about 2,200 calories a day. If your child is involved in athletics, they need more than that.
▪ Avoid “weight talk.” It’s just as important to avoid complaining about your own weight as it is to focus on your teen’s weight. Whether talking about your own weight or theirs, don’t send the message that body shape or size is something to be ashamed about.
▪ Enjoy a family meal. Eating a meal together, at least once a day, not only helps keep the channels of communication open, but it also promotes healthy eating habits. Research shows that family meals improve nutrition and dietary intake. Parents can model nutritious food choices and support their children in developing eating behaviors and a relationship to food that will foster healthy development.
▪ Avoid TVs or other electronic devices in the bedroom. Electronic use in bedrooms is associated with decreased physical activity and poor nutrition. Eating meals while tuned into a device makes us less aware of our relationship to our food.
▪ Talk to your daughter about weight and healthy development. It is normal – and necessary – for adolescent girls to gain weight. During puberty, rapid weight gain in girls, of 15 pounds or more, is a normal part of development. A failure to gain weight during adolescence can, in fact, be unhealthy. Girls need to know that developing a few curves during adolescence is a natural part of their development into womanhood.
If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, get help. Early diagnosis and intervention can make all the difference. Talk to your health care provider. Your provider might suggest family-based therapy, which has been shown to be effective, or other forms of counseling.
A positive sense of self developed in adolescence will help your child lead a happier and healthier life.
Dr. Julie Cheek is a board-certified pediatrician with Unity Care NW, formerly Interfaith Community Health Center.