We Have the Power (and Responsibility) to Prevent Eating Disorders in Future Generations

Children are impressionable. They are constantly looking to the adults in their lives for guidance, for approval. For better or for worse, they are enchanted by the actions of the older people surrounding them. Consequently, parents and teachers are aware that their every move is being absorbed and analyzed. And many try to mold themselves into people of character and values, infusing qualities into those receptive minds and hearts, qualities of strength and honesty, of love and ambition. But the obvious danger of such a relationship is that children also observe the negative behaviors and attributes of those adults. They are enthralled by the scandalous stupidities that we call "fun" or by the detrimental actions we label as "part-of-growing-up" or "part-of-being-an-adult." They soak in the struggles which adults try ineffectively to hide. They catch the slightest changes and secrets and attempt to replicate them.

To understand the shift of any occurrence from adult to child population, one must first recognize the pervasiveness of some of these issues. For example, there is an increasingly common occurrence of eating disorders in the adult population. In adolescents and adults, about 1% of women suffer from anorexia nervosa, and about .5% suffer from bulimia nervosa. Another 3.5% suffer from the binge eating disorder. The numbers are huge.

The incidences of eating disorders are now beginning to grow in the younger population. Between 1996 and 2006, the rate of hospitalizations of children under the age of twelve due to eating disorders rose by 119%. This is a red flag. It is a massive neon red flag demanding attention. This statistic is a cry for help. It is an indication of the reflection of adult actions in children’s habits.

To say that our perception of beauty in distorted and unhealthy is an understatement. A video of Dove’s Real Beauty Workshop for Girls depicts a model undergoing the transformation from being an ordinary, simple (and pretty!) young woman to becoming a model with perfect hair and eyes and skin. Take a minute to watch this video:

Clearly, the final image of this model is a result of make-up, artificial lighting, blowing fans, and touch-ups.

But it would be too easy to blame the media alone for the extensiveness of eating disorders. It would be too simple. Such disorders are a result of numerous biological, genetic, mental, and emotional factors. And to help prevent these illnesses, we must, with the help of physical and mental health professionals, understand these factors, and perhaps focus less on our reaction post-disorder, and more on our action pre-disorder.

It may be more effective to actively plant seeds of positive self-image and health in their minds as they grow up, instead of waiting to address the problem once it has done irreparable damage. For example, a recent article in the May 4 issue of the Economist describes the efforts of Revolution Foods to provide children in public schools with healthy lunch meals. Although the idea sounds simple, it is, as the title indicates, revolutionary. A team of chefs works tirelessly to develop recipes that the students will enjoy, while reacting to daily reports regarding what is or is not being eaten. Teaching healthy eating habits while integrating the children’s response … it is a science, an art. It is a way of combatting eating disorders before they begin. And most importantly, it is working. In the San Francisco Unified School District, once Revolution Foods signed the contract to serve their food in 114 schools, the proportion of students who joined the free meal plan increased by 12%.

Health is not just a physical state of being. It is a mindset. But how can we spread this mindset to the coming generations? Well, children are impressionable. They are constantly looking to the adults in their lives for guidance, for approval, enchanted by the actions of the older people surrounding them. So now the ball is in our court. Can we live up to the standards that we ourselves set for the little people?