We live in a world where our kids get programmed to worry more about what they look like than about character and academic success. According to national statistics, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat; 42 percent of first- and third-grade girls want to be thinner; and over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors, including skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
Stigma against the obese is on the rise, yet it’s a constant battle not to overeat in a society rampant with sodas, fast food, and super-sizing. As one Richmond highschool junior puts it, “The media salutes the Victoria’s Secret model as ideal, while it’s impossible for most people to look like that.” In fact, research from The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders shows that only 5 percent of American women naturally possess the body type most often portrayed by advertisers as beautiful.
It is easy for the ultimate reward of being healthy and viewing eating as a pleasurable experience to get lost. At a very early age children are taught to see food as an enemy: desserts that make you fat and undesirable; cautionary tales about overeating because you’ll get diabetes or die of a heart attack; warnings against processed foods that cause cancer. The truth? All foods are perfectly fine in the right context and level of moderation. Yet, children as young as seven or eight learn to think of some foods negatively, and feel bad about themselves when they eat the wrong food. They then might compensate by skipping the next meal or trying a Fad diet where they only eat salad, one of the few meals our culture deems as right. At best, the confusion lends itself to unhealthy relationships with food and self-disgust. At worse, these habits form the basis for future eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
Jon Robison, PhD, a pioneer in eating-related concerns, speaks on the damages of the current war on obesity that is responsible for national programs in elementary schools targeting heavier children. The programs are based entirely on weight and height ratios and don’t take into account individual growth patterns, genetics, or the damage that’s done to the children who are labeled as too heavy. “Health should be for all children of all sizes instead of obesity prevention. Health is designed for all kids, not just fat ones. The programs fighting the war on obesity cause feelings of self-hate and a negative body image.” Dr. Robison emphasizes that a healthy weight is what the body weighs when people are acting healthily.
Children should only be compared to themselves, not movie stars, models, friends, or other siblings. If a child is diverging from a previously established growth pattern, as parents, we can assess the possible reasons. If it’s determined that a child’s regime needs healthier foods or more exercise, it should become a family affair. “A child should never be singled out as the chubby one who shouldn’t eat dessert or who needs more exercise,” explains Robison. “If changes are needed, incorporate them into the whole family for the benefit of everyone.”
“Never encourage diets with children,” states Judith Banker, MA, LLP, FAED, founder and director of the Center for Eating Disorders. Even if a child is pudgy, the parent response needs to be, “You look great to me.” The focus must be less on weight and more on a sense of wellbeing. Being healthy is the goal, not a jean size or a number on a scale.
Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD, is a dietician and family therapist whose focus is on changing negative attitudes toward foods and making eating a positive, enjoyable family experience. Satter believes that, “the secret to feeding a healthy family is to love good food, trust yourself, and to share that love and trust with your child.” Enjoyment is essential. Grazing, eating in the car, and viewing food as full of rules and restrictions does not support your children in developing healthy relationships with food. Her book, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, (which includes research, practical age-appropriate guides, and recipes) should be in every parent’s library for its clear common-sense approach to healthy food relationships.
Satter emphasizes family meals as essential, having “more to do with positive outcomes for children and adolescents than any other factor – extracurricular activities, tutoring, music lessons – you name it. Relaxed meals are as essential for nurturing as they are for nutrition.” She goes on to say, we should teach children to stop eating when they are satiated and avoid pushing membership in the proverbial clean plate club. Even though people are starving in Ethiopia, it doesn’t help Ethiopians if our children are overfed and lose their natural ability to tell when they’ve had enough.
Clearly, when appropriate behavior is modeled at home, children will be less inclined to develop issues with food. If a mom regularly talks about how dissatisfied she is with her body and Constantly diets, her children will be more prone to do the same.
So what to do if you have regular family meals, tell your children they are beautiful just the way they are, model good behavior, and your child still hates his or her body? The well-researched book, I’m, Like, So, Fat! By Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, guides parents to help their teens make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weightobsessed world. Dr. Neumark-Sztainer developed cornerstones for promoting a healthy weight and positive body image in teens. “Societal pressures don’t help teens develop a positive body image. As parents, we play a crucial role in enhancing our children’s sense of identity and bolstering their body image and self-esteem.” The cornerstones give parents tools to help teens have a healthy weight and relationship with food, without inadvertently affecting their body image and developing identity.
Still, even with awesome parenting, kids may develop disordered eating. As soon as your son starts skipping meals in order to make weight for wrestling, or you begin to question your daughter’s honesty when she tells you again that she ate a big lunch and is not hungry for dinner, intervene. “Even subtle statements and changes need direct and gentle confrontation,” states Banker from the Center for Eating Disorders. It is all too easy to slip into an eating disorder. Our culture encourages these illnesses, as people are praised immediately for weight loss, even if it comes about by unhealthy ways, like it does with anorexia by starvation or from bulimia by purging. Additionally, not eating when food is all around can make a person feel very powerful. The sense of power in denying food can be addictive. However, it’s a paradox because in reality, the food ends up controlling the Person’s life with obsessive thoughts and self-destructive behaviors.
Parents shouldn’t be blamed for the development of an eating disorder, but we do need to be responsible for taking charge once one is established. Banker states, “eating disorders should not be coddled, because if the person wants to stay sick, they will stay sick.” Seek treatment right away, and get into a support group for families. Banker says early intervention is the best chance for cure. It’s a lot easier to intervene when your child still lives at home and has the support and boundaries of family life.
Sadly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. Prevention is key; this requires a proactive and open approach involving your whole family, not just the affected child. Understanding how to feed a healthy household means you’ll need to plan out more than meals. Pay attention to how you, as a parent, allocate meaning to food. While making eating fun, delicious, and varied, do your best to eliminate the idea of bad foods and avoid using food as a reward. Most importantly, keep in mind that our culture too often rewards children for how they look, sometimes to their detriment. Counteract that in your home by encouraging health and wellness, identity defined by more than appearance, and open lines of communication.