Preventing Eating Disorders

happy young women in pool
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Positive views on body image and healthy coping skills can help prevent eating disorders.

Helping young women learn to resolve problems in healthier ways than by manipulating their meals and weight is the goal of eating disorders screening and prevention programs on campuses across the country. Even so, according to the U.S. Department of Health Task Force on Eating Disorders, prevention efforts aimed at teenage girls may come too late. It's enormously difficult to change body image attitudes and unhealthy eating patterns once they are formed. Primary prevention needs to take place early, before girls learn to feel bad about their bodies.

How you perceive your body is only one component of a complete self-image, but too often it becomes the sole factor in determining self-esteem. When "how-I-look" becomes more important than "who-I-am," the groundwork is laid for crippling and life-threatening eating disorders. Parents can do a lot to prevent that from happening, beginning with examining attitudes about their own bodies and by fostering a healthy, positive body image in their children. Take these steps, even with young girls, to discourage unhealthy behaviors:

  • Accept that puberty will influence girls' perception of their bodies, but be prepared to step in if certain behaviors become unhealthy;
  • Don't reinforce the message that women have to look a certain way;
  • Teach girls how their bodies change during adolescence and that it is normal to gain weight during puberty;
  • Talk about images of women in the media and how they are unrealistic for most, if not all, women;
  • Take women and girls seriously for what they say, feel, and do, not for how slim they are or how they look;
  • Encourage children to be active as a way to have fun and to enjoy what their bodies can do;
  • Exercise with your children to promote a healthy family lifestyle;
  • Model healthy attitudes about your own body (Girls need to see women who are satisfied with their bodies and appearance or who take positive and healthy steps toward making changes. Girls who see their mothers worrying about their own appearance and weight are more likely to believe that being thin will make them happy.);
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  • Don't nag about eating or focus on eating habits, which could make a child more self-conscious and secretive about her relationship with food;
  • Don't compare her to others and don't be judgmental about other people's weight; and
  • Most important, don't ignore an eating disorder. It is a devastating and potentially fatal disease. But people can and do recover from this illness, once it is correctly diagnosed and treated. If you are a mature woman with an eating disorder, talk to a health care provider for guidance. Support groups may also be helpful.



Research on Eating Disorders

Researchers are studying the role of gonadal steroids and their relevance to eating disorders. The connection is suggested by evidence that girls and women are at much higher risk for these disorders; that the disorders tend to emerge at puberty or soon after; and that there is increased risk for eating disorders among girls with early onset of menstruation.

Research on interrupting the binge-eating cycle has shown that once a structured pattern of eating is established, the person experiences less hunger, less deprivation and a reduction in negative feelings about food and eating. The two factors that increase the likelihood of bingeing — hunger and negative feelings — are reduced, which decreases the frequency of binges.

Scientists continue to investigate the effectiveness of psychosocial interventions, medications and the combination of these treatments with the goal of improving outcomes for people with eating disorders.

Researchers are searching for genes that confer susceptibility to eating disorders. Scientists suspect that multiple genes may interact with environmental and other factors to increase the risk of developing these illnesses. Identification of these genes will permit the development of improved treatments.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are investigating the combined use of a growth factor and a medication routinely used to treat postmenopausal osteoporosis as a novel treatment for the bone loss seen in women with anorexia nervosa. Growth factor is natural, nutritionally regulated and greatly reduced in women with anorexia nervosa. This growth factor has been shown to stimulate bone formation in previous studies. Perhaps the combination of these two medications will help rebuild depleted bone and prevent further bone breakdown in women with anorexia nervosa.

Scientists at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center (HEDC) are investigating a possible link between mitral valve prolapse and anorexia nervosa. HEDC is also involved in a multicenter trial investigating the use of the drug fluoxetine in bulimia relapse prevention.

Copyright 2003 National Women's Health Resource Center, Inc. (NWHRC