Being a slightly picky eater or being a more mindful eater than most is one thing; but when food becomes an obsession, it’s some real cause for concern. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) estimates that approximately eight million people in the US suffer from some form of eating disorder. To put it in perspective, that’s about three percent of the population. Worse, some kids and young adults may be taking their focus on healthy foods to a really unhealthy level.

Photo of a young happy family having breakfast

Eating disorders and obesity can be fueled by any number of factors, whether it’s societal pressures, mental health struggles or an expression of past trauma. And now, a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that parents play a *huge* role in determining teen’s relationships with food. The AAP emphasizes that parents’ focus really needs to be on a healthy lifestyle rather than on weight.

Pediatric researchers have found that there’s an increasing number of kids trying seriously unhealthy tactics to try to control their weight, and parents and doctors often don’t see it because they don’t look like common eating disorders (ED). “Most adolescents who develop an ED did not have obesity previously,” says the study, “but some adolescents may misinterpret what ‘healthy eating’ is and engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as skipping meals or using fad diets in an attempt to be healthier, the result of which could be the development of an ED.”

Photo of a young happy family having breakfast

And where do they get these ideas about what’s healthy? In part, the wrong messages might be coming from parents. The study’s authors write, “Some adolescents and their parents misinterpret obesity prevention messages and begin eliminating foods they consider to be ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy.'” Not to mention, your kids are totally aware of your personal body shaming. “Mothers who talk about their own bodies and weights can inadvertently encourage their kids to have body dissatisfaction,” the study says.

The troubling thing is that so often disordered eating behaviors — such as skipping meals, over-exercising and self-induced vomiting — are hidden. All anyone sees is the weight loss, and it’s praised, no questions asked. But if these unhealthy patterns continue and become an obsession, they cause lasting physical and psychological damage. Which is why it’s so important for parents and pediatricians to pay attention to why a kid is rapidly losing so much weight (even if they did need to drop some pounds), and not just the results on the scale.

So what does promoting a “healthy lifestyle” actually look like? First of all, kids shouldn’t be dieting. The evidence shows that dieting in adolescents creates a strong risk factor for both eating disorders and obesity. Parents also need to avoid talking about their kids’ or their own weights, and definitely should never tease a child about their body, because both are proven to put kids at risk for weight and eating issues later in adolescence. What parents can and should do is model healthy attitudes and behaviors around food. Family meals are crucial times for this, and data shows that families consume up to one more serving of fruits and vegetables when they eat together.

And these tips aren’t just for kids — they go for anyone. If your family is still a factor in your struggles with body image and weight loss or gain, you might want to pass this study on to your parents.

How do you keep yourself focused on health over weight? Tweet us your tips @BritandCo.

(Photos via Getty)