THE BEST WAY to prevent eating disorders in your child, say health professionals, is to encourage healthy eating habits and a strong self-image. They offer these tips:
* Teach your child to eat well-balanced meals. If you take care of your body and eat sensibly, your child probably will, too.
* Discourage the idea that a particular diet or body size will automatically lead to happiness and fulfillment.
* Don't use food as a reward or punishment. It sets up food as a potential weapon for control.
* Don't constantly criticize your own shape -- "I'm too fat; I've got to lose weight" -- in front of your child. Such comments imply that one's appearance is more important than character.
* Don't equate food with positive or negative behavior. The dieting parent who says she was "good" today because she "didn't eat much" implies that avoiding food is good behavior. Similarly, "Don't eat that -- it'll make you fat" implies that being fat makes one unlikable.
* Remember, a lot about size is in the genes and is out of your control. Encourage kids to appreciate the outward differences in people, and not make personal judgments on appearances.
* Know that signs of an eating disorder can show up before puberty. A girl may start starving herself in anticipation of inevitable changes in shape well before she develops curves.
* Be aware of the warning signs. Your child may have a problem if: She regularly refuses typical family meals or skips lunch at school; she makes comments about being fat or an acquaintance who's "too fat"; shopping for clothes has become stressful because she's grown a size larger and doesn't want to face herself in a mirror; you see signs of secret dieting or secret bingeing; she begins to withdraw from her friends; or she becomes irritable and depressed.
For more information on eating disorders, call the Maryland Association for Anorexia Nervosa & Bulimia at 938-3000, Ext. 3199, or write Eating Disorders Awareness & Prevention, 3420 Woodland Way, Carlsbad, Calif. 92008.