These days, when people say, “I was so bad today,” they are typically not referring to having killed someone, which would warrant such a statement. Rather, the comment is often in the context of self-judgment surrounding their food choices for the day. The demonization of certain foods and the contagious guilt associated with eating contributes to the American public’s unhealthy relationship with food. Ensuring that the youth of America has a healthy view on food and exercise is one of the goals of September’s National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Regardless of a child’s body mass index (BMI), specialists note that the development of a healthy relationship with food at an early age has the potential to save someone from long-term struggles with pathological dieting, eating disorders and self-esteem issues relating to food and weight.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one-third of the children and adolescents in the United States were diagnosed as overweight or obese in 2012. Childhood obesity is a serious nationwide and worldwide issue, but it is argued by some that the disordered patterns of thinking surrounding food implemented to combat the epidemic might be fueling it, along with eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Melissa Whitelaw, clinical specialist dietitian at Australia’s Royal Children’s Hospital’s eating disorder clinic, reports that 47 percent of individuals admitted to the clinic with severe anorexia in 2009 had been previously categorized as overweight. She also notes, “Many of those adolescents, when I first met them, they’ll talk about how they were talking about obesity in school” and how that influenced their views on diet and exercise.
Children diagnosed as overweight or obese are often put on regimented diets, potentially paving the way for an unhealthy relationship with food. This is controversial to some activists who advocate for strict diet and exercise to reduce rates of childhood obesity. Catherine Davis, associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia, suggests that there is a middle ground between a highly restrictive diet and letting a child struggling with obesity continue down a path that could expose him or her to serious mental and physical health risks. Davis explains, “Pretending the child is not overweight or obese sends a harmful message that they should ignore their health. Rather than being punitive or setting dietary rules that only the child has to follow, have the whole family improve their diet and physical activity habits together.”
Developing a healthy and positive relationship with food is possible for children starting at a young age. Casey Seidenberg, co-founder of nutrition program Nourish Schools, suggests that labeling certain foods as “bad” can induce feelings of guilt and self-hatred in children and adolescents when they indulge in said foods. Instead, she suggests labeling sweets and foods that are considered less healthful as “sometimes foods” to children, so they understand that all food is okay to have “sometimes.” Likewise, Seidenberg suggests allowing children to understand their own cues for hunger and fullness, instead of forcing them to eat if they are not hungry. This lays the foundation for intuitive eating, a skill that many children naturally possess but is often manipulated by cultural attitudes toward food.
An unhealthy relationship with food can lead many children to struggle with childhood obesity and accompanying mental health issues, such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression. If you or a loved one is struggling with these issues, help is available. Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating individuals struggling with mental health disorders, substance abuse issues and dual diagnosis. Call (866) 819-0427 to speak with a professional today.
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer