Rhonda Patt

Eating disorders on the rise, but parents can help


Q. I have a 9-year-old daughter. I overheard her friends talking about dieting and being fat. None of these girls is overweight. Should I be concerned? Is there anything I can do to help my daughter (and her friends) have a healthy body image?

A. In the United States, the incidence of eating disorders is on the rise. Simultaneously, the prevalence of obesity in our nation continues to climb. This situation provides a tough balance for parents talking about healthy eating habits while not putting too much emphasis on body image.

Of particular concern is an increase in the presence of eating disorders at younger ages. Between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders increased 119 percent for children younger than 12. It may come as a surprise to know that nearly half of girls between the ages of 6 and 12 are concerned about their weight and afraid of getting fat. It is estimated that 0.5 percent of adolescent girls have anorexia nervosa (restrictive eating) and 1-2 percent have bulimia (binge-purge eating behavior). Nearly 10 percent of eating disorders occur in males.

Eating disorders are complex and sometimes life-threatening. Many people with eating disorders also have underlying mental health issues such as depression. As a parent, it is important to do the following:

▪ Help your child understand and accept her changing, growing body.

▪ Listen to comments that your child makes about her own bodies and others.

▪ Discourage the use of language such as “ugly” or “fat.”

▪ Promote a healthy diet and physical activity.

▪ Emphasize physical fitness rather than being thin.

▪ Monitor what you say about your own body and other people’s bodies.

By setting a good example regarding healthy eating and positive body image, parents can play an important role in their child’s development.

Rhonda Patt is a pediatrician with Charlotte Pediatric Clinic. Email living@charlotteobserver.com; put “pediatrician” in the subject line.