This is how it starts.
When I look back on my own years of obsessive dieting and binge eating, it’s always with a laugh and an eye roll: “Every teenage girl had an eating disorder then. It was a rite of passage.” I was never frighteningly skinny or forced into treatment. It was simply always there, quietly controlling my moods, my wardrobe, my metabolism and my sense of worth.
In adulthood, my relationship with my eating disorder has softened into more of an easygoing partnership than toxic abuse. But it often makes its presence known through internal dialogues and little games: daily weigh-ins that determine whether I’m wearing pants with buttons that day; parsing out cookies two at a time because odd numbers are uncomfortable.
The gravity of my responsibility as a parent is not lost on me: I’m partly in charge of two little people’s nutrition, helping to establish habits that could shape their relationship with food. And I desperately want them both to remain free from my burdens.
My fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Some research has pinpointed a genetic link to anorexia nervosa, suggesting the disease can be inherited. But more broadly, a whole confluence of factors can lead to disordered eating, and much of that begins in childhood.
“Eating disorders are very complex illnesses …” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. “Factors like biological predisposition, co-occurring psychological conditions and cultural messages all play into it.”
Though I could never pinpoint the origins of my disorder, memories related to my weight and body shape flow from every direction. My pediatrician lecturing me about adding more roughage to my diet. Watching my mother fret about her own body, even though to me she was just mom and I didn’t understand why it mattered. Eating my way through a box of cereal — no milk added — because my body craved endless amounts of sugar. Always being the slowest, the clumsiest, the last one picked and wondering why other girls could be thin without even trying.
But back then, no one ever thought there was a problem with a young girl obsessing over calories and fat grams, as long as the net result was weight loss. Because I never hit any physical danger — either hospitalization thin or obesity-level heavy — it wasn’t a “real” disorder.
Even though I was never diagnosed with a disorder, I reasoned that I had learned enough in my lifetime to empower my kids. I would never force my children to eat if they’re not hungry. I don’t talk about my body issues with them. If going out to dinner means they only eat french fries for one meal, that’s okay.
But I couldn’t control my reactions of glee and high praise when my kids made the “right” choices. That rose to the surface when I offered my son a bite of my food.
“No, thanks,” he said.
“I’m only offering it because I think you’ll actually like it,” I wheedled. (See how laid-back and supportive I can be?)
He sighed heavily. “But then I might like it. And then you’ll be really proud of me. And I can’t deal with that right now.”
“Kids are so smart,” says Lauren Anton, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in treating disordered eating. “If you have an agenda with food, kids will sniff it out.”
How can we model healthy eating without making it a big deal?
“First, we have to move away from the term ‘healthy’ even though it’s well-intentioned,” she said. “There is no good food, bad food.”
To illustrate that, Anton points to various scenarios that seem innocuous, but can add up: A little girl at a birthday party who, after being chastised by her mother for eating M&Ms, secretly stuffed her mouth with the candy, grabbed two handfuls and ran away. Parents who say, “You’ve had enough bread, now eat your vegetables,” and the kids who look for praise when they do eat those vegetables. Even “clean eating,” paleo diets and other modern food trends can evolve into disordered eating because they’re based on the idea of restricting food.
I reached out to other parents who had battled eating disorders. One of them, Kimberly Bernstein, is a college friend and I remembered how deeply anorexia affected her daily life. She told me her struggles started when she was 10 — not far from her three kids’ ages now.
“In my desire to feed them real, whole foods, I noticed that one of my daughters was becoming sugar obsessed,” she said. “All of her imaginary play had to do with cupcakes and candy stores, and I realized I was creating what I didn’t want.”
Bernstein, an Austin-based yoga teacher and licensed clinical social worker, had to give up some control in her children’s diets. “I still shudder every time my husband feeds them the organic version of Nutri-Grain bars,” she says. But she has reframed her focus — and theirs.
“I ask them to pay attention to how their bodies feel after they eat, because giving them the tools to trust themselves is going to work out better than controlling their choices,” Bernstein says. “That’s the gift I can offer them because of my past.”
Another mother, Katie Norris, shared similar insight.
“I knew that if I didn’t ever comment on his food or force him to eat, that would be better for him. But at the same time, I was starving myself. You think you’re hiding it from them but you’re not,” says the Ohio mother of a teenager.
Norris worked toward her own recovery using the “intuitive eating” philosophy, which allows you to eat unconditionally — without assigning “good” or “bad” labels to specific foods — and teaches you to listen to your body for hunger cues while using methods other than eating to honor your feelings.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Between sensitivities to certain ingredients and the health habits she developed within her CrossFit community, Norris struggled with the idea that setting any food restrictions is a sign of disordered eating. Through time, she reached a balanced mind-set that has worked for her, and that she can pass along to her son.
“The message we try to give is that we eat food that fuels our body and brain to work as best they can,” Norris says. Because her son also struggles with food sensitivities, she’s had to be careful about letting him experiment, but keeps the focus on how foods make him feel.
She also suggests taking a step back. “If you’re really upset that they won’t eat their broccoli, sit with it and ask what is making you panic.”
As for other steps, everyone I spoke with offered similar suggestions:
- Avoid talking about weight, body mass index or numbers on a scale. That can be a trigger that leads to an unhealthy fixation.
- Let your kids take the lead. Using the Ellyn Satter Institute’s Division of Responsibility, it’s your job as a caretaker to decide what, where and when they will eat. It’s their job to decide whether they’ll eat it and how much.
- Don’t label food “good vs. bad,” “healthy vs. unhealthy.” “When there’s deprivation and restriction, it becomes a ‘Last Supper’ mentality,” Anton says. “Serve your kids food family-style, in abundance, and all foods become equal. When you have variety — maybe some nights there’s fruit for dessert and others it’s ice cream — you no longer feel like you have to have it.”
- Dine together as much as possible. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, eating at least three meals together a week has a protective factor against eating disorders. It makes eating as much about the experience of being with loved ones as it is about the food itself.
- Pay attention to your kids’ digital use. While social media doesn’t cause disordered eating, it can amplify behaviors that are characteristic of people with eating disorders: the need for approval, comparing yourself to others and a sense of competition.
- Ease up on yourself. As Mysko says, “People with eating disorders tend to be really hard on themselves, and you’ve got to give yourself a break. If you’re making an intentional statement that you don’t want to pass on disordered eating to your kids, that’s a positive step.”
Sarika Chawla is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter @SarikaChawla6.