Many of today’s teens are caught in a Goldilocks balancing act. They don’t want to look too fat, and they don’t want to look too thin. They want to be just right.
But what is just right? Mixed messages abound. Hollywood covets extreme thinness, plus-sized models are a size 8 and Oprah tries every diet. On the other hand, restaurants serve excessive portions, and schools have snack machines with candy bars and sugared drinks. Where is the healthy eating message?
Body Image and Eating in Conflict
We’ve all heard of the obesity epidemic in America, and the vast majority of Americans are also aware of the health consequences of obesity: diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, to name a few. According to a new UCLA School of Public Health study published in the American Journal of Public Health, childhood obesity is directly related to children’s exposure to commercials that plug junk food.
Hence, today’s youth experience a constant conflict between yearning for snacks and treats, while desperately longing to be trim. The statistics support this dichotomy: 30 percent of teens are overweight and 15 percent are obese (American Obesity Association) and one percent of adolescent girls have Anorexia Nervosa (Academy of Eating Disorders).
What We Hope For
As parents, we want our teens to have healthy self-images, to eat enough but not too much, to get enough exercise and to make healthy dietary choices.
Limited control over their choices
Yet, we have limited control over our teens. They can order what they want in the school cafeteria; they can make their own breakfast, pack their own lunch, purchase their own snacks and even prepare their own dinners.
Limited family time
Families are also so busy and stressed in today’s world that we’re not cooking well-balanced, nutritious meals and sitting down together to eat each night as a family. Dining in front of the TV or computer, eating fast food or eating on the run all take a toll on an adolescent’s diet.
Potential eating disorder
Parents worry that treating an overweight teen may lead to an eating disorder. Tara Harwood, a Cleveland Clinic dietician, argues that shifting from one extreme of obesity to the other extreme of anorexia is very unusual but not impossible. Michelle, from Ohio, experienced just this.
“I was 10 years old and looking through magazines filled with Victoria’s Secret models, and I started to wish that I could look perfect like them.”
Feeling sensitive about her 275 pounds, Michelle began a downward spiral. “Those magazines are propaganda. I became obsessed with my body. I’d analyze every bite of food and what it would do to my body. I craved acceptance and thought people would like me if I were thin.”
Michelle developed bulimia. “I started throwing up at age 11. And I continued this destructive behavior for seven years. I eventually started to throw up blood, but I wasn’t worried. I got straight A’s and had lots of friends. My situation worsened. I began to pass out and have trouble sleeping. When I passed out in front of a friend, she said she loved me and that I needed help. I cried and told her I did need help.
“I have tried several weight loss programs. I’m currently in an intense outpatient program. I’ve learned not to use my body as a crutch for my emotions. I want to say that I’m happy with my appearance, but that would be a lie. I’m still not viewing myself accurately,” said Michelle, who is now almost 17 years old, weighs 160 pounds and is working to reach a place where she’s comfortable with her looks.
How To Spot Unhealthy Eating
Are there warning signs? Adrienne Ressler, Eating Disorder and Body Image Specialist at The Renfrew Center, says, that parents need to look at the shadow that eating behaviors cast on a teen’s life:
- changes in relationships
- loss of pleasure
- focus on food
- weight and exercise to the exclusion of all else
- resistance when a parent tries to limit or restrict food or activity
- loss of interest in social life, projects and activities that used to bring enjoyment.
In the most serious cases, food and weight concerns become central to the teen’s being.
“As the behavior becomes more serious, the shadow will grow larger, taking over your teens life,” says Ressler.
Why We Eat
Why are some teens obsessed with food while others barely remember to eat? According to Amy Schmidt, Program Coordinator of Healthy Kids, Healthy Weight at University Hospitals, Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, kids who are obsessed with food are eating for other reasons.
“Eating may be masking an emotion,” Schmidt says. “Each teen needs to be able to evaluate the underlying need. Is it hunger? Boredom? Stress?” Schmidt encourages teens to make a list of activities to do instead of eating. For example, if a teen eats when bored, create a list of boredom busters.
While many of today’s teens tip the scales and many others struggle with eating disorders, there are also a number of teenagers who are just naturally too thin. Just as overweight young people struggle with their body image, kids who are too skinny also face their own unique struggles. Mia Varrone, a 13-year-old who lives in a suburb of Bridgeport, Connecticut, stands four feet, 11 inches and weighs in at just over 80 pounds. Mia confided that she has always been petite.
“It runs in my family,” she says. “My aunt weighs only 86 pounds. People often think I have anorexia, but it’s not true. I love to eat. I eat a lot of carbs, like pasta and waffles, and I like candy.”
Mia believes people are born with their body shape and that there isn’t much one can do to change it. “I eat lots of junk food and that’s not healthy. I’ve taken dance classes, but I’m not too active. No matter what I eat or how much I just hang out, I still stay small. When people say, ‘Wow! You’re so skinny,’ they think it’s a compliment. But it isn’t really, when you have to live with it.
How to be a Healthy Eater
Professionals offer many suggestions.
1. Work with them to know their bodies.
Harwood explains, “We don’t use the word ‘diet’ because our goal is to create healthy life choices about food and exercise. If you are hungry, then you should eat. The more complicated piece of this advice is to know your body, to know when you are actually hungry.”
2. Model leading a healthy lifestyle.
There are ways we can help our teens maintain a healthy weight. Many pediatricians suggest that parents start with themselves and set the example by leading healthy lifestyles.
3. Eat as a family.
Yoga teacher and Holistic Coach and mom of three, Robin Lange, of Trumbull, Connecticut, recommends that families sit down together for dinner in the kitchen as much as possible.
“Try not to eat on the run or have your kids scattered and eating at random,” she says. “To help them find balance in their bodies, they have to balance their lives by having relaxed family dinners. And it’s even better if you can involve your teens in the meal planning and preparation. Also, let them choose the physical activities that appeal to them.”
4. Follow nutritional advice.
Harwood has several important suggestions:
- Eat every 3-4 hours, never going more than four hours without food.
- Never skip breakfast. Most obese kids report skipping breakfast.
- Know your body’s hunger signs and eat accordingly.
- Drink milk. A British study showed that people who drink milk for breakfast stayed satisfied longer.
- Slow down the pace of eating. It takes 20 minutes to feel hungry.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Exercise portion control.
- Meat should be the size of the palm of your hand and starch should be the size of your fist.
Ressler also suggests eating fresh food in lieu of foods from a box. Instead of forbidding foods, labels foods as either “always foods” (for example, fresh fruit or vegetables or “sometimes foods” (for example, potato chips).
Schmidt encourages the 9-5-2-1-0 initiative:
- 9 hours of sleep
- 5 fruits & vegetables a day
- 2 hours or less of screen time
- 1 hour of physical activity
- 0 sugar-sweetened drinks
5. Don’t make food an issue.
There are also ways for parents to prevent their teens from falling into the trap of eating disorders. Pediatricians and nutritionists agree: Don’t make food an issue or battleground. Instead, promote healthy meals and a healthy lifestyle. Parents can encourage their children to develop a healthy body image by reminding teens and pre-teens that it’s normal for their bodies to change shape as they develop.
6. Don’t focus on weight.
Also, don’t be overly critical of their weight or body shape; in fact, don’t focus on weight at all. Point out that the media often glorifies stick figures, but that those images are unrealistic and even unhealthy. If you suspect your teen is focusing too much on their weight or body image, seek professional help immediately.
So what is the solution: milk at every meal, plant-based vegan diet, no junk food and food pyramid-type moderation? Professional opinions may vary, but some things are clear. Our teens need more activity, more sleep, more vegetables, less screen time, less junk food and less focus on appearance.