5 Tips to Prevent Eating Disorders in Adolescents

To prevent eating disorders in adolescents, we have to take care of their mental health and their relationship with food. See how.
5 Tips to Prevent Eating Disorders in Adolescents
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Adolescence is a critical stage in the development of eating disorders (ED). Social pressure, low self-esteem, the need to fit in, or difficulties in managing emotions increase during this period and can lead to fatal outcomes. For the same reason, one of the fundamental tasks to be carried out at home is to prevent eating disorders in adolescents.

The family is a major socializing agent: It transmits values and habits and significantly influences the way of life of young people. Learned attitudes towards food, one’s own body, image, and physical and mental health can work as protective or predisposing factors for this type of disorder. So, how can we protect our young people? Here are some fundamental guidelines.

Eating disorders in adolescents

Adolescents are the most vulnerable population in terms of the development of eating disorders.

In Spain, it’s estimated that between 4.1 and 6.4% of women between 12 and 21 years of age have an ED, as well as 0.3% of men. In addition, 70% of adolescents don’t feel comfortable with their bodies, and a high percentage present risk behaviors that may lead to a disorder in the future.

These data are discouraging, especially if we take into account that eating disorders are appearing at increasingly younger ages.

Besides being an obsession with body image, we’re dealing with complex syndromes that produce great emotional suffering and put people’s health at risk. These often last for years and cause serious physical and emotional problems that can be irreversible. For the same reason, prevention is a priority.

To avoid them, we must first know what we’re facing. Although the terms anorexia and bulimia are generally known, not everyone knows what they are or is aware of the other types of eating disorders that exist.

So, if you’re the parent of a teenager, the first piece of advice is clear: Stay informed from clear and reliable sources.

A teenager with bulimia.

How to prevent eating disorders in adolescents?

Beyond the above, it’s important to apply a series of guidelines and principles from the time our children are young. Remember that, although in adolescence the peer group plays an important role, it’s at home where the most important personal tools are acquired.

1. Help your children develop a good relationship with food

A child’s relationship with food begins to develop from birth, continues with breastfeeding, and later with solid foods. In order to encourage it to develop in a positive way, it’s important to convey to children that food is the “gasoline” of their body and that eating properly is an act of love for one’s own body.

Therefore, the priority and baseline should be health and not aesthetics.

In this regard, we must allow children to tend to their hunger and satiety signals, not force them to eat, and not blackmail or bribe them with food.

Likewise, meals should be pleasant and relaxed moments in which there are no conflicts, arguments, or distractions (such as cell phones or television).

2. Create family routines and habits

It’s been shown that children who eat together as a family have a lower risk of developing eating disorders than those who don’t.

Family mealtime, at the same time, allows parents to set an example of healthy eating. Likewise, it encourages the whole family to share the same menu and young people to opt for unhealthy choices. In addition, pleasant discussions during these moments are very positive for strengthening family ties.

It’s also very beneficial to exercise regularly as a family. This promotes self-care and healthy lifestyle habits in an enjoyable and natural way from the earliest years.

3. Build strong self-esteem in your children

Low self-esteem is a major risk factor for developing eating disorders in adolescence.

Your children need to develop strong and consistent self-esteem, recognize their qualities, accept their flaws, and value themselves for who they are, beyond their physical appearance.

This unconditional love for themselves will enable them to cope with age-related peer pressures, as well as the aesthetic mandates promulgated by the media and social media.

4. Inform them about the risks

Although it may seem unnecessary, it’s important to talk openly with adolescents about what an ED involves. We need to tell them about the symptoms, causes, and consequences, as they need to know the major health risks involved and that it’s not a game.

Sharing this information with them can help them recognize when they’re at risk and encourage them to ask for help.

Similarly, we need to pay attention to our children s concerns and needs. If they’re concerned about their image or weight, always contact professionals for individualized help.

5. Teach them to take care of their mental health to prevent eating disorders

A mother with her arms around the shoulders of her teenage son.

Finally, we must remember that eating disorders are psychological conditions. Therefore, anxiety or depression problems, being a victim of bullying, or going through a difficult personal or family period can act as triggers.

It’s essential to teach our children to manage their emotions, to give them the confidence to express themselves, and to count on us for whatever they want. And if this isn’t enough, seek professional help.

Parenting styles are related to the appearance of eating disorders. For this reason, we must opt for a democratic education, rather than an authoritarian, permissive, or indifferent style.

Preventing eating disorders in adolescents isn’t always possible

Although parents strive to apply all the above principles, no adolescent is exempt from suffering from an ED at some point. Therefore, early detection becomes critical.

As a parent, you need to be aware of the signs and seek professional help from the very beginning. Letting the disorder progress will only worsen the repercussions on your children’s physical and mental health.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Losada, A. V. (2018). Trastornos de la Conducta Alimentaria y Estilos Parentales. Perspectivas Metodológicas, 21 (I), 89-112
  • Sociedad Española de Médicos Generales y de Familia. (2018, 30 de Noviembre). Los trastornos de la conducta alimentaria son la tercera enfermedad crónica más frecuente entre adolescentes. [Comunicado de prensa]. https://www.semg.es/index.php/noticias/item/326-noticia-20181130
  • Marfil, R., Sánchez, M. I., Herrero-Martín, G., & Jáuregui-Lobera, I. (2019). Alimentación familiar: influencia en el desarrollo y mantenimiento de los trastornos de la conducta alimentaria. Journal of Negative and No Positive Results4(9), 925-948.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.