Prevention Groups in Communities and Homes

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As everyone was scrambling to find a seat in the cafeteria, Anne sat down and pulled out her lunch. Three of her friends were at the table with no lunch in sight. They began to chatter about their bodies: “I am so fat.” “My stomach is never going to be as flat as yours,” and “At least both of you have skinny thighs, mine always rub together.” The three girls turned to Anne and looked to her to join in, but Anne stared blankly at them. If she said she liked her body as it was, her friends would think she was being stuck up. Instead, she decided to “put down” her own body, even though she did not believe what she was saying at the time. Over the years, Anne forgot that she used to love her body.

Stories similar to Anne’s happen every day to girls and boys. However, just fifteen years ago Anne would not have had a chance to be part of an educational group telling her something different than her friends. Programs for adolescents were scarce that taught the reasons not to attack your body with words or actions, or that provided ideas for other ways to handle the lunchroom chatter. Young girls and boys should have the chance to be part of a positive community that says they do not have to feel dissatisfied with their bodies. These are called prevention groups.

Today, more schools, communities, churches, and parents are starting prevention programs. With funding and research slowly increasing, the positive results are accumulating. Between 1994 and 2005, 50 prevention programs were evaluated and published in the scientific literature, according to Neumark-Sztainer’s literature review1. Prior to this time, only six evaluated programs were published. The young field of eating disorder prevention is finally beginning to show signs of progress. A prevention program supplies parents and their children with tools to resist body preoccupation and disordered eating behaviors. In a society that directs us to use food and our bodies as a means to cope with stress, feelings, and life, a prevention program is a way to counter problems before they start. These programs teach young people to combat the pressures to be thin, to be perfect, and to be always in control.

Obesity prevention has also grown considerably in the past several years. With this awareness spreading, it is important to not lose sight of eating disorder prevention. The two fields can combine into a powerful front against abusing food, whether it is restricting, bingeing, or both. The risk factors for both obesity and eating disorders are astonishingly similar. There is preliminary evidence that dieting, media use, body image dissatisfaction, and weight-related teasing have relevance for the development of a spectrum of weight-related disorders.2 Obesity and eating disorder researchers are increasingly utilizing an integrated approach to the prevention of these disorders. The overlapping ground between eating disorders and obesity prevention would include the following: 2

  • healthy weight management
  • healthy eating patterns
  • increased physical activity
  • enhanced media literacy
  • positive body image
  • skills for coping with stressors

As a concerned society, we need to act by having aggressive primary prevention programs aimed at 4th, 5th, and 6th graders that fully incorporates these ideas. Programs such as Full of Ourselves are moving us forward, however, you can begin with a systematic approach by making changes at home.

In The Parent’s Guide to Full of Ourselves, Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD and Lisa Sjostrom, EdMexplain ten practical tips that families can use to help prevent weight-related disorders. 3 Below is an excerpt (used with permission).

1. Remember: there is no such thing as a “joke” about someone’s body.Research shows that teasing and harassment contribute to the development of eating disorders.

2. Set a good example through your own actions. Demonstrate care and respect for your body. If you need help with your own relationship to food, see a doctor or nutritionist. Let your child know that you take yourself and your health seriously and that your goal is to eat healthfully and create a healthier lifestyle.

3. The same goes for words! Never put yourself down for how you look in front of your son or daughter. Don’t tolerate anyone else putting you down either. Try not to greet friends with comments about appearance. Instead, practice taking people seriously for what they think, say, and do.

4. Wear clothes that express who you are, regardless of your size and shape. Don’t let your body shape keep you from doing things you want because you don’t “look the part.”

5. Keep an eye out for weightist messages in the media with your daughter or son. Name, discuss, and refute them. Girls and boys need to hear parental critique (and outrage) again and again.

6. Encourage and support your children in a sport and other activities that give them the experience of living fully and masterfully in their body. Try something new with your children and build competency together.

7. Take stock of your cupboards. Are they filled with foods from all food groups? What kinds of snacks are on hand? Supply your kitchen with a variety of low-cost, high-health foods.

8. Provide regular family meals. A rule of thumb for meal times: parents are responsible for what, where, and when a child eats; the child is responsible for how much.

9. Avoid using food as a reward or punishment. Find ways other than shopping or eating to celebrate your small victories on any given day. When your child is upset, try going for a walk, or making a cup of tea, and talking together—rather than going out to eat. Your time is one of the most nourishing resources you can offer your child.

10. Let your child know that you love him or her no matter what he or she weighs! Listen to your child’s opinions, show appreciation for her uniqueness, and as often as possible allow her to take the lead. If you are worried about her weight, talk to her pediatrician or a nutritionist.

References

1. Neumark-Sztainer, D., Levine, M., Paxton, S., Smolak, L., Piran, N. & Wertheim, E. (2006). Prevention of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating: What’s next? Eating Disorders, 14, 265-285.

2. Haines, J. & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2006). Prevention of obesity and eating disorders: a consideration of shared risk factors. Health Education Research, 21, 770-782.

3. Steiner-Adair, C. & Sjostrom, L. (2005). The Parent’s Guide to Full of Ourselves.Available: http://www.mclean.harvard.edu/pdf/education/youth/foo-parent-guide.pdf. Used with permission.

By Danielle Beck-Ellsworth, MS, MFT Intern
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Winter 2008 Volume 6, Number 1
©2008 Gürze Books

About the Author

Danielle Beck-Ellsworth, MS, MFT Intern, is a prevention specialist and program therapist for Healthy Within, Inc. in Carlsbad and San Diego, CA. She has been conducting primary prevention programs for the last four years. She can be reached at www.healthywithin.com.

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