The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report online recently citing an increase in hospitalizations for eating disorders among children less than 12 years has risen 119% from 1999 to 2006. Eating disorders can include at the worst bulimia (binging and purging) or anorexia nervosa (self- starvation), with consequences like dehydration, growth retardation, loss of bone mineral density, and depression. Eating disorders also include seemingly innocuous behaviors, like skipping meals, lying about food intake, and refusal of food. While this problem is usually attributed to white adolescent girls, it is affecting more boys and people of color. The Academy points to fixated fear of being overweight and excessive dieting as some of the causes.
Obesity rates among children have risen to 17%, and the Center for Disease Control has had to adjust its standardized growth charts to accommodate the growing girth of children. The CDC predicts that this generation will have a shorter life span then their parents due to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer that are exacerbated by life long obesity.
What is going on here?
Amidst the blizzard of diet advice, dire news reports, and school lunch brownie battles, we are just trying to feed the family. But we hear that carbs are evil, organic is better, eating at night makes you fat, Vitamin D cures cancer, and olive oil is miraculous. STOP!
It may not seem so, but the truth has not changed much. Eating a healthful, well balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates (whole grains), lean meat, fruits and vegetables, and lots of water is the answer.
Food has come to represent reward, punishment, status, love, and virtue. Let’s see food for what it is: sustenance and energy, as well as one of the glues that hold our culture together. Let’s come back to a table of fresh, whole, healthful, and delicious dishes meant to be shared with family and friends.
Both overweight and underweight kids suffer from the same malady: a skewed relationship to food. We need to examine our own feelings about food to help them repair theirs.
I wholeheartedly agree that part of the reported increase in eating disorders is from a child’s fear, not that they are fat, but that they will get fat. Everyday children are bombarded with reports of childhood obesity, they are taught about healthy eating in school, and at home some. They learn that some foods are “good” and other foods are “bad”. When a 6 year old eats “bad” food they think they too are “bad”. As adults we need to make it a point not to use words like “good” or “bad” to describe foods, not to use food as a reward or punishment. Also, not to use food as a space filler – boredom eating! Our kids shouldn’t hear us call ourselves fat or say “I need to lose weight” or “That woman/man/child needs to lose weight.” Imagine the following scenario:
Your daughter sees an overweight woman in a store asks you why that person is so fat. You tell her that it’s because that person eats too much bad food and watches too much TV. Your daughter thinks about all the times she’s eaten “bad” food and how much TV she watches and imagines herself as the large woman in the store. That night she picks at her dinner and doesn’t want dessert. The next day she eats breakfast but decides to forgo her sandwich and snacks at lunch and only eats her fruit and drinks her milk, because she learned those are “good” foods. This child is restricting food out of a fear of being overweight.
The truth is that anytime anyone restricts food they are exhibiting disordered eating and are setting themselves up for future problems with their relationship with food and eating. If your child is currently overweight do not put him or her on a restrictive diet. Instead, consult with a professional such as a Registered Dietitian. Evaluate the foods that come into your home and how much activity your family gets. Do not single your child out; instead make healthy living a family affair.
If your child is beginning to question his or her own body and restricting certain foods remind your kids that they are beautiful inside and out. Tell your children that people come in all different shapes and sizes and not one of them is good or bad. Remind your child that all foods can fit into a healthy diet and that food gives them the energy they need to live and play. If you are truly concerned about overeating or restrictive in your child, consult their pediatrician and seek a consult from a registered dietitian.