Teen Eating Problems: Avoiding Eating Disorders (cont.)

Member: Wrestling season just ended. I was appalled at the things the boys at our high school went through to make weight, whether they needed to go up or down. Isn't this harmful? Can't this lead to eating disorders?

Brownell: This is an interesting question. My colleagues and I have studied this issue, and typically find that the disturbing behavior that is promoted by the sport of wrestling tends not to be carried on beyond the wrestling season. Stated another way, boys appear to be drawn to wrestling for athletic reasons rather than as a means of dieting in a socially acceptable way.

There may be some boys who do develop a more permanent problem that persists beyond the wrestling season, so parents, coaches, and healthcare professionals should be alert to signs of an eating disorder. But I would certainly not say the majority of wrestlers develop permanent eating problems.

Member: Are moms who talk a lot about their appearance and their daughters' appearances, such as clothing and hairstyles, etc., unknowingly contributing to potential eating disorders as much as obsessing over weight and diets?

Brownell: There are a number of studies on what is called intergenerational transmission of eating disorders. It does appear that mothers who are critical of their own appearance, speak often of how they look, or are constantly dieting in a way that is public to the family have daughters (and perhaps sons) who are at an elevated risk for developing eating disorders.

Children learn from the media and from friends that they are to be evaluated for how they look rather than who they are as people. This is a terribly harmful message, but is a relentless one. Sometimes a child's only buffers are messages delivered by parents. A child must learn that their body is their friend. They should celebrate what their body can do, how it allows them to lead an active and happy life, and not feel that their body betrays them when they fail to meet some social standard.

Parents are in a position to protect their children from these toxic messages, or to make the messages even more powerful than they are already. Parents can either not speak about their own bodies and their physical appearance of their children, or deliver positive messages. Parents can also be good models, healthy, reasonable eating, and regular, but reasonable exercise.

Member: What is "normal" as far as a teen boy's eating habits? My son seems to eat as much as he breathes! He isn't overweight. I am just worried that as he gets older his enormous eating habits will get the best of him. And I am concerned about what it is he eats (way too much pasta; and I was so happy when he learned to cook!).

Brownell: It would probably be a mistake to ask your son to change his eating in order to prevent later weight problems. This would probably focus him on weight when he otherwise may not be worried. It certainly does make sense to work with your son on healthy eating, not in the service of weight, but in the service of his overall health, energy, and happiness. He sounds old enough to understand nutrition on his own. There are some excellent web sites with information that may be helpful both to him and you. A good place to start is nutrition.gov. I hope this is helpful.

Member: Does the "starving kids in China -- clean your plate" argument make for trouble as kids become more independent and make their own food choices more? Does it lead to overeating?

Brownell: The issue has not been studied enough for me to give you a definitive answer. My best guess is that the "clean your plate" philosophy is counterproductive, because it teaches children to ignore their own internal signals of hunger and pay attention instead to what somebody else serves them. Given that portion sizes are so enormous, people are usually served more than they need. It is best, therefore, to let the child decide how much is to be eaten and to learn to follow internal signals rather than external cues.

Member: Both of my teens are athletes. What should they be eating before and after competition? My son plays baseball and football. My daughter is a swimmer.

Brownell: There is some very good information available on sports nutrition. If you go to a web site like Amazon.com and put in the name Nancy Clark in the search field you'll find several fine books on nutrition in both male and female athletes.

Member: What do you think about sports drinks?

Brownell: My own belief that sports drinks are highly overused. For someone who has been quite active, the sports drinks can be very helpful because they replenish electrolytes. The problem in my mind is that many youngsters are drinking these sports drinks in large amounts, not realizing that they are basically sugar water and can add a considerable number of calories to the diet. The other problem is that the serving size of sports drinks, the 20-ounce bottle, whereas when children are drinking other soft drinks, sometimes at least they have smaller servings.

"Our foods tend to look so unlike what comes from the farm that Dr. Frankenstein would be impressed."

Overall, sports drinks should probably be used in moderation and not considered a source of good nutrition other than the impact they have in a person who is being physically active. Stated another way, water may often be just as good, but without the calories.

Member: How can I get my teens to think about what they eat? I don't supply junk food, but they are mobile and have their own money.

Brownell: The problem parents face is that their children live in the real world. No matter how ambitious a parent might be in teaching their children good nutrition, children still watch television, go to friends' houses, and are exposed to all the drive-in windows, convenience markets, and soft drinks and snack foods in schools that affect everyone. A power struggle can begin between parent and child if the parent tries to manage the child's eating too closely. What probably works best is to provide as much nutrition information as possible, and to focus on how healthy eating can enable a child to reach his or her goals in life, because the good food will promote health and happiness.

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