It is currently estimated that approximately 10% of the female population in the U.S. and Canada will be afflicted by an eating disorder. Once thought to be a “female problem,” statistics show that ever increasing numbers of males (especially athletes) are also struggling with this devastating illness. In fact, it’s likely that someone you know has been touched by an eating disorder – a family member, friend, employee or student – even if you don’t know about it yet! Given the difficulty of treatment (not to mention the expense) and the heartache that often accompanies this disease, it makes sense to focus our efforts on prevention along with treatment.

Why wait for an eating disorder to develop? By talking to kids early – and often – we may help prevent ED’s.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that actually rewards people for engaging in the behaviors that lead to an eating disorder! When someone begins to lose weight they often receive compliments from those around them. When an athlete makes a certain weight class, regardless of how he does it, he is often praised by his coach and teammates. Dieting has become an expectation and not merely an option – just look at the BILLIONS of dollars we spend on dieting, weight loss programs, and cosmetic surgery annually. It seems we comment on body shape, size and appearance just for sport. Most of us talk many times a day about what we should or shouldn’t eat (“Dessert? Really, I shouldn’t…”); our need to change the way we look (“Just five more pounds and I’ll be happy…”); or about the appearance of others. We get messages from the media, friends and family which suggest that in order to be happy and successful one MUST be thin (if you’re female) or muscular (if you’re male). Think about it – do you know anyone who is truly happy, content, or just plain satisfied with the way they look?

And our preoccupation with appearance isn’t the only problem. Our desire to constantly achieve; to be productive, rather than enjoying leisure time; and to excel to the point of perfection all create a fertile breeding ground for eating disorders. Throw in the pressure (especially on females) to please and take care of others instead of themselves; to hide their emotions (especially anger!); and to find the perfect relationship (“She’s single? Hmmm… wonder what’s wrong with her.”) and it’s easy to see why so many women develop this complicated disease. (For a list of other risk factors and underlying issues, click here).

Many people don’t realize that eating disorders can cause serious and irreversible health problems like heart damage and premature osteoporosis. In addition, the damage to a person’s self-esteem and relationships is often tremendous. In order to prevent the illness, research suggests that we must start talking to kids at an early age. Helping them challenge distorted media messages; develop healthy self-esteem based on who they are rather than how they look; and accepting themselves as less than perfect all help to inoculate kids against eating disorders. Repeating the message often throughout the teen years, and talking to parents and teachers together with kids, can make a big impact. Even employers prefer the benefits of preventative work, rather than losing a valuable employee to extended treatment programs.

My prevention work

In addition to my inpatient and outpatient work, I am available as a speaker to staff, parents, employees and students of all ages regarding the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. The range of topics can include preventing and treating eating disorders; creating a culture of acceptance; developing healthy body image; improving self-esteem; women’s health in general; challenging the media; and building healthy environments (families, schools, workplaces, and/or communities).

I have spoken at the National Eating Disorders Conference; Conference of Independent Schools in Aurora and Toronto; at the University of Guelph; Wilfred Laurier University; and at several private and public grade, middle and high schools in Guelph, Burlington, Okaville, Elora, Newmarket and Toronto for audiences ranging in size from 15 to 250 people. I work with children at all grade levels; with staff and administration; with social workers and counselors; and with parents. If you are interested in having me speak at your function, please contact me.