Our health messages could be pushing teens into anorexia, bingeing or bulimia.
That's what the research suggests. With soaring rates of obesity and eating disorders in kids, today's young people are getting powerful messages targeted to help them make healthy choices.
But at the same time, the prevalence of eating disorders has actually increased. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of males and females with disordered eating has doubled. More and more adolescents are resorting to bingeing and purging, whatever size or shape they are.
Researchers and psychologists are now suggesting that public and school-based health advice for young people could be driving this trend. And that's no small matter, considering almost 1 million Australians now suffer from eating disorders.
So how exactly do we bridge this gap of promoting health in young people, without pushing them into a different set of problems?
On a personal note
Anyone who's dealt with disordered eating knows that it's too complex to reduce to a single cause. Being a Christian doesn't exempt you either. I can attest to this as a former anorexic who began restricting herself at age 17.
But we can help change the conversation. On the back of research from National Eating Disorder Collaboration, here are some key areas to consider in speaking about health and body image.
There are many body shapes.
As a society, we see only a limited number of body shapes portrayed by the media—and for teenagers, this is confusing when your body shape doesn't fit that mould. Deconstructing media imagery and pointing out how diverse bodies are is important at this and any age.
This sounds obvious, but as a teen, I honestly thought I could be as skinny as a supermodel if I just tried. If I didn't look that way yet, I just needed to lose more weight. This just isn't true. Some people are naturally lighter or heavier for a variety of biological reasons, and we need to dispel the stigma around any point on the spectrum. It's a vicious cycle that weight stigma can result in disordered eating, which then leads to more weight stigma.
Try to avoid numbers.
It took me a long time to realise that the number on the scale means different things to different people. You can't make a judgment on someone based on this number—especially not the increasingly discounted BMI measurement. This is important to remember for two reasons.
First, for teens who are prone to disordered eating, quoting how many kilos a person weighs or what their BMI is can be like a red flag in front of a bull. I remember knowing what an "underweight" number sounded like, thanks to BMIs and magazines—and when I hit that weight, it was an achievement. Eating disorders are hugely competitive.
Second, one weight can look and feel very different on different people. Your health is far more complex than a number of kilos—and forgetting this can result in situations where otherwise sporty, healthy girls are (incorrectly) told they are an unhealthy weight.
Numbers aren't the story. So try to avoid numbers.
When talking about nutrition, it's about moderation, not exclusion.
It's important to emphasise to kids that it's not healthy to cut out whole food groups. Child and adolescent psychologists point out that young minds tend to be 'black and white' in much of their thinking. The result is that some kids can start avoiding fats and sugars altogether, when actually you need different types of these in balance to keep you healthy.
My story is typical of the research. As a 17-year-old, I would screen foods on the basis of fat content, and it took me a long time of trust issues with food to discover that "fat", "sugar" or "carbohydrates" aren't evil.
In a sentence: Sugary, fatty and "junk" foods may be the smallest part of the food pyramid, but they're still part of the pyramid.
Losing weight is not a virtue.
We congratulate people for losing weight, and it's true that it can help your overall health. But being thin is not an indicator that you're healthy.
For teenage me, losing weight was a positive reinforcement for my lifestyle. It made me believe that big weight is bad, small weight is good, and gaining weight is a failure. This is false. My smallest weight was not healthy and actually caused me health issues, instead of solving them. I am a larger weight now, but have more energy and feel much healthier than I did then.
Losing weight can mean a healthier lifestyle, but it's not the aim for its own sake. Motivation is key.
Model healthy body image
This is the key to all of the above. At the heart of it, positive body image is making a choice to nourish and care for your body, regardless of what you ate or how you're feeling about it. We are each made in God's image and we are to take care of our bodies. This is a powerful testimony. In fact, it's shown in studies that one person's positive body image promotes positive body image in others.
Public health promotions are important and valid, but it is clear there's a danger that they can push young people into further confusion. Disordered eating is a web of causes and effects, but positive conversation around the issue can make a huge difference.
If you're concerned about yourself or anyone else who might have an eating problem, I'd encourage you to talk to a healthcare professional, or more specifically to get more information from National Eating Disorder Collaboration.
This article also appeared here: http://www.run-and-lift.com/nutrition/eating-disorders-how-to-talk-to-young-people/
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional and has a background in editing. She lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html