According to statistics, eating disorders are more common in females than in males; in fact, only one in three individuals with eating disorders are male while the rest are female. These facts may be true for adolescents and adults however there was no information on the prevalence of eating disorders among children in the United States until recently. To answer the question of how common eating disorders in young children are, a team from San Diego State University (SDSU) studied 4,500 children between the ages of 9 and 10 years old. Results showed that there was no difference between genders for this age group in the development of an eating disorder. In other words, eating disorders among boys develop at the same rate as they do in girls for this age group.

Given the lack of gender differences among 9 to 10-year-old children with eating disorders, there may be added social pressures or hormonal differences that occur during or post puberty among girls that increase the risk of developing eating disorders. Could it be the rise in estrogen, the innate feeling to fit in with their peer and the increase in awareness of the development of breasts and hips in puberty that is responsible for the rise in eating disorders among prepubescent and teenage girls?

“The most surprising finding was lack of gender differences across all eating disorder diagnoses; the overall frequency was 1.4 percent. That is, unlike adults and adolescents, girls did not experience significantly greater eating disorder diagnoses than boys…this could suggest that gender differences don’t begin to emerge until adolescence”, according to one of the study’s primary researchers.

As parents, how can we teach our children about the importance of healthy eating without causing harm in a way that the child can develop an eating disorder? Should we treat our daughters differently than our sons in regards to this topic as they approach puberty? There are many unanswered questions that have been elicited from the results of this recent study and although it is not certain as to why females have a higher tendency than males to develop eating disorders after a certain age, parents can play a crucial role in keep eating disorders at bay starting from a young age by talking to their kids about food in a healthy manner, starting from a young age.

Childhood obesity and eating disorders are extremely dangerous, but so is allowing the labels “good” and “bad” food as this can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. The goal is to teach a positive, open-minded approach to food while giving kids options to choose their food and to learn the nutritious value of what they put in their bodies.

Do not label food as “good” or “bad”

Often, parents will label sugary, fried, and salty foods such a fries, donuts, cookies and pizza as “bad” and fruits and vegetables as “good,” which can create a judgmental picture of food in your child’s head. Of course, you do not want your toddler to eat five bags of potato chips and a pound of candy, but it is important to explain why some foods can help them grow strong, and other foods are just fun “sometimes” foods.

Get the kids into the kitchen

Kids love to learn, get their hands dirty, and help their parents. Cooking and baking is a great way to teach kids how a nutritious meal is made while allowing them to tap into their creative side. You can teach them about each ingredient throughout the process, and these fun activities can inspire a desire to be involved in family meals and cook for their future families.

Educate them on healthy living rather than focusing on a healthy weight

Overweight kids are often teased in school, and weight gain in childhood can result in chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Instead of talking about weight gain and weight loss, it is better to introduce the concept of a healthy lifestyle, which includes cooking nutritious foods, playing team sports, eating sweets, and treats in moderation.

Be body positive

Celebrate that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and use body-positive language instead of body shaming language. Body positive language includes talking positively about yourself and others, emphasizing that you exercise for fun (not to achieve a certain shape), and never talking poorly about other people’s bodies. Kids pick up on your comments and remarks, internalize, and repeat them.  Give them words worth repeating to others, and themselves.

Source: JAMA Pediatrics