Across Canada, from February 2nd – 8th, it is Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW), where the focus is on raising awareness and understanding with regards to these mental illnesses, which can be life-threatening. Events are happening throughout the country from provincial buildings, such as Science World and BC Place, being lit up in purple in recognition of EDAW, to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s (NEDIC) first spoken word event where performances will cover the topics of body image, food and weight preoccupation and more.
Eating disorders are more than just what is commonly viewed as anorexia or bulimia and more than just an issue with food and eating. There is a spectrum. A person might start with a weight concern that has them engaging in disordered eating behaviour (such as dieting) and gradually moving across the spectrum exhibiting anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or other tendencies with regards to food and weight preoccupation.
Not to suggest that every dieter will become an eating disorder patient. But for those susceptible (i.e. perfectionist tendencies, a need for control and/or low self esteem), the risks for moving into the more dangerous side of the spectrum are greater.
Last year, a report by CTV News highlighted some startling statistics:
- “There is a rise in the numbers of adults, teens and children, some as young as five, seeking help for eating disorders.”
- “…there are two-to-three times more cases than a generation ago.”
- “…the rate of obesity is nine percent in girls, while the rate of eating disorders is at 18 percent.”
With media and cultural focus on the importance of weight and appearance, it’s no surprise that the prevalence of eating disorders is on the rise. But there is another culprit – the ongoing fight on the “war on obesity”. There are consistent messages that tell us fat is bad which could be harming, not helping, our adolescent children.
A 2013 article, published in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, identified several children that developed eating disorders due to different healthy living school-based programs. Some of the topics addressed were:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Proper nutrition
- Labeling of food as good versus bad/junk food
- The effects of obesity.
These children tended to fit the profile of being perfectionists, hardworking and/or overachievers. There was also an element of low self-esteem and body image concerns. They took the notion of healthy living to the extreme by limiting caloric intake, avoiding certain foods and compulsive exercise. One boy became so obsessed that he put his hand in boiling water to remove butter his mother had added to the pot.
A Balanced Approach to Teaching Healthy Living
Teaching our children healthy behaviours is important. But, there needs to be less focus on weight and more encouragement on reducing size discrimination and stigma, coaching children towards more mindful practices that connect them to their bodies’ needs.
Here are some suggestions, including points addressed in the Healthy Bodies: Teaching Kids What They Need to Know” curriculum, developed by Kathy Kater, a psychotherapist who specializes in body image and weight concerns:
- Identify the many facets of health, which include not only the physical but emotional, social and other factors too.
- Be a positive role model by speaking and behaving more positively towards your body. Stop the fat talk!
- Teach children to critique media messages they receive and how cultural pressures to be thin are more damaging to how we feel in and about our bodies.
- Engage in physical activity that is fun and puts a smile on your face. Take weight loss or weight maintenance out of the equation.
- Teach kids to be intuitive with their hunger and satiety cues, something they were initially born with but may have lost connection to. Ellyn Satter’s books are wonderful resources for helping families create more healthy and peaceful mealtimes.
If we can take the focus away from obesity prevention efforts and move towards teaching more body positive, holistic health and mindful lifestyle practices, we might not only be able to set our children up for a balanced healthy life, we might be able to minimize the occurrence of eating disorders too.
A quote from NEDIC’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week campaign sums it up best:
“It’s not our bodies that need changing. It’s our attitudes.”
For a complete listing of EDAW events happening throughout Canada, see the National Eating Disorders Information Centre’s (NEDIC) event page.
Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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About Michelle Pitman
Michelle Pitman is a Wellness Coach serving the Durham Region. With a Health at Every Size ® philosophy, Michelle coaches and educates on creating a balanced lifestyle through stress management, intuitive eating and finding joy in movement. Have a question? Want to learn more? You can connect with Michelle via Facebook or Twitter or just send her an email.