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Healthy Body; Healthy Mind

November, 2011
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In today’s world of celebrity glitz and glamour, touch-up technology and glorified weight-loss tricks all over the media, it’s not uncommon for young girls to stare in the mirror and wonder, “Am I too fat?”

This is part of a problem that many parents worry will lead to eating habits in their children’s lives. There seem to be many rules from countless sources on how to eat “right,” and parents can have a tough time finding the right balance to promote in their home. However, when it comes to preventing eating disorders, it’s most important for parents to teach kids how to have a positive relationship with food and the notion of self-image.

eating-disorder-dr-laureDr. Lauren Muhlheim, a US-trained clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist, was invited to give a talk entitled “Healthy Body; Healthy Mind” to parents of Shanghai American School, Pudong Campus on October 28th. During her talk, Muhlheim tried to give parents everything they should know about eating disorders and pointed out that dieting is one of the main risk factors behind developing an eating disorder, and parents should do everything they can to remove it from their lives.

Research shows that an increasing number of children whose parents diet are beginning to diet themselves. Studies also show that diet talk occurs in adolescents as young as 8-years-old, and thus, it’s not unheard of for a child to acquire an eating disorder at that age. Parents are by no means the cause of an eating disorder, but their language in front of their children can help discourage a bad habit and perhaps prevent a child with a predisposition to an eating disorder from developing one. Muhlheim says parents should avoid saying words or phrases such as “dieting” or “cutting out foods”, and instead express that they’re “eating healthy” and adding fruits and vegetables to their daily regimen.

Muhlheim has worked with many families in Shanghai to deal with eating disorders and to provide education about them. She supports a model of therapy called Mausley Family Based Therapy (FBT) to treat children with anorexia or bulimia. FBT is a rehabilitation process that allows the child to stay at home for improvement, rather than going away to a treatment center. The therapy focuses on providing education on the eating disorder and developmental issues, and research shows that a high percentage of participants have fared well with this approach.

When parents are abroad and away from their home support system, their especially in need of skills that will help them cope and improve the health of their child with an eating disorder or their child may have to return to the US or UK for treatment, Muhlheim said. Parents can start by learning to recognize the warning signs early on so that they can take the next steps to make their child healthier faster. One of the signs might actually be that a child is starting to diet.

“Most eating disorders start out looking like a diet, so it’s easy to miss,” Muhlheim said. “Some start out a little bit overweight, so they start to lose weight and parents think, ‘Oh good, my child is starting to get healthy. But what happens, is that they get reinforcement from all over and people say they look great, which makes them diet even further. It can pretty quickly turn into an eating disorder.”

“It’s common for individuals with an eating disorder to deny the problem so if you talk to your kid about it, and they’re denying it, I wouldn’t stop there,” Muhlheim said. “It’s always better to take it more seriously than not. There’s less harm in overreacting. Parents are kind of worried about making a problem worse, but in this case it’s much better to do something than not.”

eating-disorder-sMany schools, including Shanghai American School where Muhlheim gave a presentation on eating disorders, are working toward expanding their methods on teaching students how to have a healthy body image to prevent the precursors for eating disorders from occurring. Some parents look to resources such as international schools for help after they themselves feel lost as to how to help their kids maintain a confident self-image, especially after a stressful move from China away from a familiar support system.

Cristina Zubieta expressed having difficulties when she moved from Mexico to Shanghai with her 15-year-old daughter. Upon the move, she noticed her daughter was acting differently – she was upset about her weight.

Muhlheim says adolescent growth is “erratic.” So while Zubieta’s daughter surely shouldn’t have been concerned by a small gain in pounds, she still didn’t feel fine because she didn’t look like everyone else. She was surrounded by Asian media, Asian clothes and Asian peers who had a body type that, compared to hers, was thinner.

In the mid 1990’s a study by Harvard University was done in Fiji, an island in the Pacific where the ideal body type is much fuller. It was a place without electricity until 1995, when television came, and with it, the Western interpretation of the ideal body type: thin. Research showed that around this time, there was an increase in dieting and eating disorders in adolescent girls. A later study revealed that the increase generally wasn’t due to the dieters themselves watching skinny actors on TV; it was because their friends spread the word of the new ideal through social networks.

Muhlheim said it’s important to combat negative input by making children aware of genetic implications of their body type and to discourage “fat talk.”

Aside from having a healthy body image, parents can also teach their kids how to have a healthy relationship with their food by following these five guidelines:

Limit junk food, but don’t completely ban it.

Take time to bake with your children, and let them know it’s okay to have a treat once in a while. If sweet food is completely inaccessible, that makes it much more appealing to them, and it’s all they will want to eat.

Teach kids to listen to their body.

When serving meals, provide children with reasonable sized portions of a variety of foods. If they’re still craving more, ask them to wait 10 minutes and see if they’re still hungry.

Practice mindful eating.

Ever been watching the first ten minutes of a movie, looked down, and suddenly realized all the popcorn is gone? Where did it go? What did it taste like? Food should be memorable and enjoyable, not a chore or a direct link to weight loss or gain. Turn off the TV during dinner, and encourage children to use all their five senses to experience the food.

Avoid giving food as a reward.

Foods used as rewards are generally those that are high in sugar and fats, and this is not considered a healthy habit to model to children. Plus, a food reward can spoil the appetite and teach a child to eat when they’re not hungry.

Positively encourage an active lifestyle.


Families should try to do physical activities together and make it fun for the children.  “The focus should really be on behaviors, which are things you can control, while weight is not something you can control,” Muhlheim said. “So if you focus on eating healthy and being active and you’re doing that no matter what weight you’re at, then we need to consider you a healthy person and not assume that when someone is overweight that they’re doing something wrong.” 


By Jessica Rapp

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