Eating Disorder Prevention

American culture tends to emphasize treatment of illness after-the-fact rather than prevention. Instead of eating well and exercising, we prefer to take a pill once sickness has already set in. And while we may be able to get away with this strategy in rare cases, prevention is the key when it comes to eating disorders.

Here are a few tips for preventing an eating disorder in yourself or someone you love:

Get Educated. Knowing the signs, dangers and treatments for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and related eating disorders is the first step toward avoiding these life-threatening illnesses. With knowledge you'll be able to sort out the myths about eating disorders (for example, that they're women's problems only or that they're just a passing phase) from the facts.

Eating disorder prevention also involves an understanding of our cultural obsession with thinness and troubles with low self-esteem and poor self-image, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Pay Attention to Your Thinking. Obsession with appearance and weight and feeling ashamed of one's body are potential signs of an eating disorder. Monitor your positive and negative thoughts as well as your judgments about others, and challenge thoughts that lead you to believe a certain weight or body type will make you happier. Also take care to avoid black-or-white thinking (for example, categorizing a food as good or bad rather than maintaining a balanced diet).

Question the Media. The media sends many destructive messages about health, body image and an individual's value. Rather than trying to achieve the unrealistic ideals of beauty portrayed on television and in magazines, adopt your own definition of self-worth that is based on your accomplishments and character. Celebrate your body and all it does for you and stop comparing yourself to others.

Express Yourself. If you've noticed problematic thoughts or behaviors in yourself or someone you care about, express your concerns right away. Eating disorders are life-threatening mental illnesses, not a plea for attention or lack of self-control.

No judgment or criticism is necessary, and avoid unwanted lectures but kindly and firmly encourage the person to seek help from a therapist or eating disorder treatment program as early as possible. A few well-researched suggestions about the best eating disorder programs can at least give the individual a place to start.

Eating disorder prevention isn't the responsibility of parents, teachers or mental health professionals alone. To combat these illnesses, everyone must take steps to achieve healthy physical and emotional development.