Here’s a hard truth about eating disorders: We still don’t know much about why some people get them, and others don’t. Doctors used to think anorexia, in particular, was caused by bad mothers (because why not), and their solution was to isolate patients from their families. Now we know that repairing family mealtime dynamics can be key to successful treatment. We also know that while environment plays a role, many EDs have genetic underpinnings. So parents (and other family, friends, schools, doctors, etc) don’t necessarily cause ED, and we often can’t prevent it—but we can contribute to its development in a vulnerable person.
When we label foods and bodies as good and bad, restrict sugar, push portion sizes, shame our own bodies and food choices, or require that treats be earned… we’re inadvertently reinforcing the restrictive mindset and fat phobia that operates at the core of every eating disorder. (Important caveat that many would say except for avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder, which often stems from extreme sensory challenges are taste and texture. In my reporting, I’ve found most folks struggling with #ARFID have internalized so much shame around their “bad food choices” that the weight anxieties often manifest there as well.)
We’re told to worry constantly about “childhood obesity” but doctors rarely mention that the rate of eating disorders among children is higher than the rate of Type 2 Diabetes. That’s in large part because doctors don’t hesitate to put large kids on diets, without considering the consequences to their mental health. That diet mentality has infiltrated how we think about food with kids of every size.
We need to stop talking diets with kids and start talking about how healthy bodies come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. We need to teach kids that they can trust their bodies and that their self-worth is about who they are, not how they look or what they eat.
We all start out accepting our bodies and knowing how to listen to our eating instincts. We don’t know enough about why it goes so wrong for some of us. But we know a lot about what we can get right.