Monday, May 09, 2011

Interesting Thoughts on Children's Eating Habits by Guest Blogger: Debra Cooper

Sometimes, it’s the story within the story that captures our attention.  So it was for me with a Good Morning America segment on Thursday, May 5.  The segment featured Dr. Oz, arguably television’s most charismatic and popular physician, along with an average American family of four:  a middle-age mother and father, a son, age ten, and a daughter, age eight.  The idea was for Dr. Oz to examine the caloric intake of the Lettera family during a 24-hour period then provide a nutrition makeover.  This entailed revealing what each family member consumed both at home and while at work or school. 

The segment unfolded as expected with an account of what each person ate throughout the day accompanied by the calorie count of certain meals.  The parents, busy, on-the-go people, proved to be ingesting the most unhealthy, calorie-packed food.  Dr. Oz pointed out the weight and health ramifications of continuing to eat in this fashion,   then provided insight on what steps could be taken to immediately improve the family’s nutrition profile.  These were suggestions such as eating more vegetables and eliminating all sugary beverages. 

Now … the story within the story.  Because I have worked in the eating disorder field for nine years, my attention was immediately captured by the daughter,   Johanna.  Unlike her brother, Joey, who had chocolate milk for breakfast, she had skim milk.   Additionally, in opposition to Joey who elected to have a meatball sub for lunch at  school, she packed her own lunch, which consisted of a yogurt, juice drink, fruit rollup and rice cake.   Although this could be perceived of as an attempt to choose healthy foods, to me, it was a huge red flag.  Skim milk, yogurt and rice cakes aren’t the normal, stanrd fare for a girl of eight, unless she is thinking about her weight.  And make no mistake, children today are inordinately concerned about weight and size; girls as young as eight years old are now being diagnosed with eating disorders.  The fact that her mother was significantly overweight only augmented my concern for Johanna.  It is in no way unusual for a daughter, who is regularly influenced by the American cultures love affair with thinness and fear of fat, to decide early on that she does not want to resemble her overweight mother when she grows up.  Toward that end, she starts imposing rigid control on what she eats and can easily become a strong candidate for the next fad diet that comes down the pike.  This us highly relevant because dieting is one of the leading indicators of a future eating disorder. 

Now the truth is, my perception of this young girl’s motivation  regarding food choices could be completely incorrect.  Johanna may genuinely love rice cakes.  However, I would caution her parents to keep a close eye on this area of their daughter’s life.  Indeed, I would encourage all mothers and fathers to do likewise.  If a child starts eating less, displaying heightened interest in calories or fat grams, or starts eliminating entire food groups such as meat or dairy from her diet, it is probably time to start a dialogue.   Ask her what is motivating these changes and see where the conversation goes.  Perhaps she is feeling insecure about her body or is concerned about changes that might be taking place.  This is particularly germaine around the time of puberty.  As parents, it is incumbent upon us to interact with our daughters about such topics as the importance  of health over weight and the value of individual character vs. the size of our jeans. 

Unfortunately, all of us in the eating disorder world have seen too many little girls  enter treatment because their health has been destroyed by an illness such as anorexia.  I have seen nine-year-old girls --  children who should be home playing with family pets, riding bikes, and joining soccer teams -- who are so emaciated by and eating disorder that they are little more than a bag of bones.  To say this is heartbreaking is a profound understatement.  No one wants this for their child.  

Debra M. Cooper, a graduate of Arizona State University, has worked as a professional writer for 25 years.  On staff at a prominent eating disorder treatment center for nine years, Debra is an expert in topics such as anorexia, bulimia and anxiety disorders.  She is the author of Behind The Broken Image, a novel that explores the impact of eating disorders on the individual and the family.    

For additional information regarding eating disorders in children and adolescents, please consult the ED Hope website.   

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