Nutrition, not Calories: Childhood Obesity Meets Childhood Anorexia

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A couple of years ago, I got an unsolicited copy of a mainstream parenting magazine in the mail. I flipped through it and found an article on children and healthy eating. It caught my interest because feeding my children well has been one of the top priorities of my own parenting. But it turned out the article wasn’t about healthy eating at all. It was about eating to reduce weight gain in your child. It recommended, among other things, substituting popsicles for ice cream in order to reduce calorie intake. The recommended popsicles were nothing but frozen corn syrup and colored water. Whatever calories they had were entirely empty ones. At least ice cream has the nutritional benefits of dairy.

I’m not suggesting that we all feed our kids ice cream all the time, but another lower-calorie option would be to reduce the amount of ice cream a child eats, or the number of ice cream occasions in her life. Or if you really want to ax the ice cream, why not substitute frozen berries? But advertising for junk food littered the pages of the magazine, and I can’t help but think the editors were loathe to dissuade their readers from the offerings of corporate food processors.

The article I remember was especially egregious in calling popsicles “healthier” than ice cream, but so much of the public health hand-wringing about obesity we’ve been hearing of late seems to be missing a great opportunity to educate parents about nutrition.

Obesity may be unhealthy, but so are other food-related problems. Just this week, the news broke that eating disorders are on the rise among children younger than twelve. Girls — and some boys, though the problem tends to be a gendered one — as young as 7 and 8 are being admitted to hospitals for the problem usually associated with teens.

Dr. Jim Lock, director of the Eating Disorder Program at Packard Children's Hospital thinks part of the problem may be that “psychological puberty” is hitting girls sooner:

In terms of interest in appearance, clothing, social behavior and sexualization, girls at twelve are experiencing what girls at fourteen were experiencing just a decade ago.

So although the whole world seems to be busy preaching against obesity and warning of a coming diabetes apocalypse, I fret about the danger of eating disorders in my own two daughters, aged five and three.

The prediction that in 20 years, half of all U.S. Americans will be obese may be alarming, but a 2008 article published in Preventing Chronic Disease reported that 25% of high school girls and 11% of high school boys had disordered eating habits to a degree that warrants “clinical evaluation.”

Perhaps because I have always been chronically underweight (with accompanying health problems like reduced immunity, irregular periods, hair loss, and other things), I have never even considered dieting to lose weight. There have been times in my life when I’ve needed daily milkshakes to keep myself from getting too thin. It’s a genetic thing, and no, you don’t “wish you had my problem,” because it is a problem. And if being too thin is a problem from a strictly physiological standpoint, being too thin — or trying to become too thin — because you have a psychological disorder that misrepresents your body to you is a really big problem. And a 25% rate among girls alone is a public health crisis.

I’m glad we are being made more aware of the problem of obesity in our society. But I wish the focus, instead of being on weight and calories, was on health and nutrition. I wish the campaigns to make kids healthier focused on both over- and under-eating, on what makes food good for you and how food can bring communities together, rather than whether or not it might make you “fat.” An ice ream social, a holiday meal, a birthday cake — these are not near occasions of sin, but celebrations that merit special food we don’t eat every day.

As Johanna Kandel, of the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness said,

There's been so much emphasis on childhood obesity, all these programs to ameliorate the situation and in a way we're actually potentiating eating disorders. That's a very thin line we need to walk and make sure the dialogue is one of a healthy attitude towards food.

My children are not genetically related to me, and though I know their first mothers (to whom they are related), it is still a bit of a mystery how my girls’ bodies are naturally inclined to look in shape and size. So rather than any particular sense of what they should weigh, I try to give them a “healthy attitude towards food” as much as I can. I want them to think in terms of health, not weight, nutrition, not calories.

Perhaps most of all, I want them to see beauty in all its forms, not just the ones offered by pop culture. When, as reported by pediatrician Blair Hammond of Mount Sinai Medical Center in NYC, fathers beaming with pride that their five-month-old daughters are “thin,” we know we have a societal problem.

Blair goes on to note how hard it can be for mothers who are “stressed and dieting all the time” to be healthy role models for their children. Well, when daddy thinks the baby is prettier because she’s in the 10th percentile for weight, who can blame mommy for feeling “stressed” in her five-months-postpartum body?

So while obesity may be a problem, it seems to me like it’s really just one end of a spectrum of unhealthy attitudes towards food that plague the United States. If all the anti-obesity messages we’re suddenly seeing shifted to become food pyramid education messages, I wonder if both ends of that spectrum would improve?

Let’s hear it. What battles do you fight when it comes to food? With yourself? With your kids? On your table? In your mind?

"All that you have is your soul." Tracy Chapman


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