“Do you REALLY think it’s possible to prevent someone from getting an eating disorder?”

That question, posed to me in 1997 by a mom of a teenage girl, stopped me in my tracks.  We were attending a kick-off cocktail event for the Eating Disorders Information Network (EDIN), the non-profit I founded to help people with eating disorders find therapeutic services.

At that time, I thought eating disorders were too complex for anyone to make a serious dent on the front end and thought the most I could do was steer people who were already suffering to a therapist’s office.

But I couldn’t shake her question. 

In my gut I sensed that reaching moms was the key.  But only two or three moms of high school-aged girls would show up for my “Preventing Eating Disorders” presentations.

Fast-forward 13 years.  EDIN’s focus shifted from treatment to prevention and as a result, we began having tremendous success reaching parents, teachers, coaches, and friends.  The key was dipping down, reaching out to moms of babies, toddlers, kids and ‘tweens: moms who feel that what they say and what they do actually still matters to their girls.   

I wrote The M.O.D. Squad Workbook (for Moms Of Daughters), basing it on the seven principles that form the basis of nearly all my work with my Eating Disordered clients. 

My intent is this: That mothers will become highly conscious of their own words and actions, while helping their girls develop emotional coping skills that can buffer them from the unhealthy messages swirling around them.

Parents should be aware that certain children who are sensitive, anxious, and perfectionistic are more vulnerable to developing eating problems.  M.O.D. Squad principles are particularly relevant for raising this type of kid.  

I will discuss the principles over the next seven columns. Here’s the first one:


“Fight Aging!” “Reclaim Your Youth!” “Ban the Gray,” “Turn Back Time!” 

We’re bombarded with the message that we can—and should fight the aging process.  We pride ourselves on being young, hip moms. But at what point does our focus on looking youthful and beautiful become a problem, or even an obsession? 

And how might this obsession impact our daughters? 

We all want our daughters to have a positive self-image and tend to be generous about telling them how beautiful they are.  But what happens when we then turn around and disparage our own wrinkles, hips and bellies? Out loud?  In front of our daughters?

This negative self-talk sends the message: “This is how females in our family really feel about themselves.”  This can sow seeds of self-doubt in your child because it’s tough for a girl to feel more confident or pretty than her mom.     

Daughters also complain to me about other types of “boundary violations” done by their mothers.  They feel their moms:

·      Share too many intimate frustrations about spouses, money worries, and/or conflicts with the extended family. 

·      Expect them to look and act perfect or achieve academically, athletically or artistically to fulfill her own unfulfilled dreams. 

·      Compete with them, trying to diet into their smaller, designer jeans, want to hang out with their friends and share secrets.


Meanwhile, these daughters confide in me:

·      “I don’t WANT to know about my parent’s problems.”

·      “It’s embarrassing to wear a larger size than my mom!” 

·      “I can’t stand her borrowing my clothes!”

·      “I don’t want a sexy mom!  Eeeww!”

·      “She gets more upset about my friend-drama than I do!”  


Good boundaries help a child develop a sense of self—separate from you. Unfortunately many of us grew up in families with poor boundaries, making it hard for us to have healthy instincts when it comes to these issues.  

Let’s say you felt emotionally abandoned by your mom and vow to be close to your daughter.  You may unwittingly end up treating her like a friend (and unconsciously hoping she will fill the hole in your soul left by your mom).  Because she’s a great listener, you share your personal business with her.  The problem is that she’s not emotionally mature enough to handle these adult issues. But you’re her mom, so she’s kind of stuck.  She senses in her gut that something isn’t right, but she lacks the vocabulary to describe her discomfort.  She figures SHE must be the problem, right? 

Over time, she may struggle to define herself separate from your desires for her.  If your kid is bright and sensitive (and we know she is!) she may feel ambivalent about growing up because she senses your discomfort when she pulls away. Or if she feels too controlled by you, she may need to rebel in a big and painful way (e.g. by doing the opposite of what you want), making the transition to womanhood fraught with conflict. 

How does all this relate to eating disorders? 

One possible manifestation might be for her to restrict her food, especially if you are a dieter.  This may be her attempt to please you (if you value self-control around food) or to stop herself from growing up (since that does not please you).  

If she loses control and binges, she may purge the calories away out of her fear of your fear of fat.    

Or she may turn to food to calm her anxieties (especially if you are a “comfort eater”).  Her weight and poor body image become the focus, rather than the underlying issues that are fueling the problem.    

Your daughter needs you to be a role model, not a buddy.  She needs to see you as someone who is comfortable in her womanly body and feels valuable enough to take care of that body.  She needs to know that you get your needs met from your adult relationships (e.g. your friends, your husband, your therapist!) and that you do not expect her to take care of you.     

So, Raise Your Right Hand and Recite the First M.O.D. Squad Principle:

I will put my daughter’s need for a role model above my desire to be her friend.  I will remain aware of the powerful influence that my words—about my daughter, my own body, and others—have in shaping my daughter’s beliefs and attitudes about beauty, fat, appearance, weight, and being an adult woman.  I am committed to eliminating diet-talk and negative body-talk.


Disclaimer #1: These principles apply to Dads and sons as well.

Disclaimer #2: An eating disorder is not a choice.  It is a mental disorder caused by a complex combination of genetic, personality, familial, social and cultural influences.   


To start a M.O.D. Squad group in your area, visit www.MyEdin.org.


Dina Zeckhausen is a nationally-known psychologist who specializes in treating adults, teenagers and children with eating disorders and body image issues.  She is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist and the author of the children's book, "Full Mouse, Empty Mouse: A Tale of Food and Feelings."  You can visit her on the web at dinazeckhausen.com and MyEdin.org.

More Dina Zeckhausen articles, click here.

  ©ShareWIK Media Group, LLC.

I’ve had a rough day. I DESERVE this ice cream!”  “I can’t stop until all the food is gone.”  “I am a Stress Eater.”


How often do you eat for reasons that have little to do with actual physical hunger?  Have you ever gone on a diet because your life felt out of control?


It goes without saying that people with eating problems—from the under-weight teen to the overweight grandmother—are not good at reading their body’s signals.  At some point in their lives they lost touch with, or stopped trusting, the wisdom of their bodies.


Even many people without eating disorders struggle with this concept.  We view our bodies as The Problem, in need of sculpting, injecting, liposucking, starving and perfecting.  We seek diet gurus, appetite suppressants and surgeons to help us conquer our appetites. 


We don’t think it wise to listen to our guts.  The misconception is, “If I listen to my gut I will weigh 400 pounds!”  Well, listening to your gut means stopping when your gut is satisfied and not eating for emotional reasons.




An overweight Brigham Young professor, Steven Hawks, lost 50 pounds by eating intuitively.  His big secret?  He only ate when he was hungry, he ate what he truly craved (even if it was ice cream for dinner) and stopped when he was physiologically satisfied.  CNN’s Soledad O’Brian interviewed him, asking incredulously, “You mean you just eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full?  Wow.  That sounds REALLY hard!” 


So how can we implement the professor’s simple principles?  There are three steps:


1. Differentiating between physical and emotional hungers

The other day my 13-year-old stated, “I’m hungry!” Then he paused and added, “Actually, I’m not really hungry.  I’m bored!”   I was thrilled that he was able to make this subtle distinction. Boredom and stress are the most common reasons for mindless eating.  (I contend we could eliminate the obesity epidemic today if people stopped using food to cure boredom and stress.)  


So if your child asks for food but you suspect she’s not actually hungry, you might say something like, “Let’s think about this. Go down inside your body.  Is your TUMMY hungry or are you feeling something else?”  If she can’t answer right away, offer suggestions: “Are you bored?  Is there anything else you are feeling?”


2. OK, so you got to a non-hunger feeling.  Now what?

A lot of times just by naming the feeling, you can figure out what you (or your child) actually needs.  Sad?  You may need a good cry.  Angry? You may need to speak up.  Nervous?  See if you need to push through the fear or run the other way! 

Before you try to talk your kid out of a bad feeling (a natural instinct to make bad feelings go away) take a moment to empathize first: “Oh, that feels yucky” or “I can understand why you might feel that way.”  Sometimes that’s all that is needed to feel okay!  The better you are at responding to feelings directly, the less likely these feelings will be stuffed, avoided or numbed with food or dieting.  


3.  Dealing with Hunger/Fullness. 

Hunger is much easier to discern than Satisfied.  Some of us keep our tanks topped off all day long so we never actually feel hungry!  It’s OK to feel hunger before you eat; ever notice how much more delicious food tastes when you are hungry?  

Unfortunately many of us view “Satisfied” as a yellow light and don’t slam on the brakes until “Stuffed.”  We inhale our food so there isn’t time for Stomach to let Brain know that the food has arrived.   The smells, tastes, visual impact, social atmosphere, conversation, the TV, are all distractions.  Your brain’s happy-centers are all screaming, “Yee-Hah! Keep that pleasure a-comin’!”  Meanwhile, your belly is whispering in the tornado: “I’m good. You can stop now.”

Huh?  Did you hear something?

So become a Belly Whisperer.   Once you trust the system which has kept humans trim for millions of years, then you’ll have more faith in your kids’ tummies.  It may mean feeding them their big meal when they get off the bus or letting them have a snack before bed.  I realize this is a controversial approach.  Many of us have strong traditions about feeding our families: three meals a day; eat what the grown-ups eat; no snacking; something green at every meal; clean your plate before dessert; kitchen is closed after dinner.  I do not mean to imply that these rules lead to eating disorders.  But I am also a fan of flexibility: it’s okay to compromise if the old system doesn’t work for your child’s body.


So, Raise Your Right Hand and Repeat after Me:


M.O.D. Squad (moms of daughters) Principle #2:


I will encourage my child to honor the wisdom of her body by helping her differentiate the needs of her stomach from the needs of her heart. I will help her respect her body’s hunger and fullness signals and I will teach her through my words and deeds healthy, effective ways to cope with difficult feelings.


Disclaimer #1: These principles apply to Dads and sons as well.

Disclaimer #2: An eating disorder is not a choice.  It is a mental disorder caused by a complex combination of genetic, personality, familial, social and cultural influences.    #

To start a M.O.D. Squad group, visit www.MyEdin.org.

Dina Zeckhausen is a nationally-known psychologist who specializes in treating adults, teenagers and children with eating disorders and body image issues.  She is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist and the author of the children's book, "Full Mouse, Empty Mouse: A Tale of Food and Feelings."  You can visit her on the web at dinazeckhausen.com and MyEdin.org.

More Dina Zeckhausen articles, click here.

©ShareWIK Media Group, LLC  

Plenty of experts are researching, writing and talking about the childhood obesity epidemic. I want to take a moment to talk about a parallel epidemic: I call it “The Fear-of-Obesity Epidemic.” It’s the newest eating disorder and it’s called Orthorexia, “characterized by excessive focus on eating healthy foods, a fixation so extreme that it can lead to severe malnutrition or even death.”

I’ve met parents who so fear having a fat kid, they go to unnecessary and potentially dangerous extremes to prevent it. At first glance, their efforts may appear laudable, but I suspect it’s not all about health. 

The other evening an acquaintance’s rail-thin 11-year-old daughter proudly showed her mother her washboard abs after running on their treadmill for two hours. “Good for you!” her mother beamed proudly. (Why wasn’t this girl playing in the backyard?) This same mom berated a mutual friend who took her two daughters for ice cream after they’d eaten Chinese food.

“Why would you do something like that?” she asked incredulously. 

“Uhm, to enjoy life?” my friend responded. 

A school counselor recently told me about an 8-year-old student who was in tears because none of the girls at her birthday party had eaten the cake. “ “These were “Good Girls” who were just trying to avoid “Bad Food,” she said. Sadly, this is something that is becoming more and more commonplace. 

The defining characteristics of an eating disorder are rigidity, inflexibility, perfectionism and the need to be in control. But your body and soul benefit when you go with the flow. 

Balance is the key. 

So how do we discuss these topics with kids so they’ll be healthy but not obsessed? 

First, let’s tone down the rhetoric about Pounds, Calories, Fat Grams and Carbs in front of our kids. Diet gurus have taught us to refer to food in this odd language, transforming us into a nation of adding machines: recording, counting, adding, obsessing. And where does this eventually lead? The Binge! This food language has made us fatter and more disconnected us from our stomachs and our souls. 

Second, let’s try to eliminate the emotionally charged, judgmental words of “Good” and “Bad” when we are talking about food and eating. These are highly loaded words for kids. Our new mantra should be: “Listen to your body.” The Body Whisperer respects the messages from her body. This will tell her just about everything she needs to know about food. 

Here are 8 Simple Food Concepts Your Kids Will “Get:” 

     When my son was 8, I explained to him the difference between a donut and a bagel. “A donut will give you a short burst of energy. But pretty soon afterwards you may feel tired, grumpy and hungry again. A bagel gives you energy that will last. If you put some peanut butter on it, your energy will last even longer!” I let him choose, but at least his eyes were open. 
     A few months later he was talking to me about some friend drama at school. “Kyle kicks me out of the Friendship Club one day, invites me back the next, then kicks me out the next! But Adam is always my friend; I can count on him.” Then he paused and exclaimed: “Kyle’s a donut. Adam’s a bagel.”

     Talk about how certain foods help the brain function at its optimal level. Kids want to be able to figure out a complicated math problem or remember the answer on the test. (3) POOPING My kids have experienced the pain of constipation enough times that a simple reminder that “fruits and veggies keep the food movin’ on through” will get the to eat their carrots. 

     Institute a One-Treat-a-Day rule, not because candy, cookies and ice cream are bad. On the contrary, it’s because they are delightfully special. If Christmas happened every day, it wouldn’t be special either. 

     Some kids hate vegetables because they are highly sensitive to textures. Slippery, slimy or mushy sensations make them gag: this is simply a hard-wired preference. Present them with crispy or fun-to-eat vegetables (have you discovered edamame?). And try not to panic about your picky eater; most kids will grow out of it and spend the next 60 years enjoying vegetables. 

     People who eliminate fat from their diets may develop thinning hair, dry skin and brittle nails. Foods that contain some fat make your hair shinier, your nails stronger and skin clearer. If you are going to appeal to vanity, describe these outward signs of health as opposed to making it all about body size. 

     As kids become ‘tweens, they may express more interest in healthy eating. Take them to the Farmers Market and explain why it’s good for her --and the planet-- to buy fresh, local, organic foods. Compare ingredient lists on labels and discuss how fewer chemical ingredients can lead to better health over the course of a lifetime, trying not to emphasize calories and fat grams. Have these discussions in a non-alarmist, unemotional way. 

    Same concept here: being active is about having fun, getting strong, burning off excess energy, getting in a better mood and increasing the ability to concentrate. Exercise should not be viewed as punishment for the sin of over-eating, buying you the right to indulge in dinner nor the means to a skinny body. The idea is to help your kid link food and exercise to the functioning and feelings inside their body. The media and peer culture will focus on their Outsides. You’ll be getting them to focus on their Insides. 

As a therapist, my primary task is to help clients struggling with eating disorders to re-learn this ancient wisdom. As a parent, you can give your child this valuable life-long gift: the capacity to listen to, learn from and trust the wisdom of his or her own bodies. 

Now Raise Your Right Hand and Repeat after Me The M.O.D. Squad (moms of daughters) 
I will help my daughter make food choices based on sound nutrition mixed with a healthy dose of flexibility. I will show her that being active is a fun way to stay fit, strong and happy and is neither the road to thinness nor punishment for the sin of eating. I recognize that perfectionism and rigidity are the problem, not the solution. 

Disclaimer #1: These principles apply to Dads and sons as well. 
Disclaimer #2: An eating disorder is not a choice. It is a mental disorder caused by a complex combination of genetic, personality, familial, social and cultural influences. 

To start a M.O.D. Squad group, visit www.MyEdin.org. 

Dina Zeckhausen is a nationally-known psychologist who specializes in treating adults, teenagers and children with eating disorders and body image issues.  She is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist and the author of the children's book, "Full Mouse, Empty Mouse: A Tale of Food and Feelings."  You can visit her on the web at dinazeckhausen.com and MyEdin.org.

More Dina Zeckhausen articles, click here.

©ShareWIK Media Group, LLC. 2010

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