Teen Eating Problems: Avoiding Eating Disorders (cont.)
Member: Now that the kids are in high school, they have so many activities that their schedules are quite busy. We used to always have dinner together as a family. How important is family dinner?
Brownell: Family dinner turns out to be quite important. There is good research showing that children's diets deteriorate when the family does not eat together. There are many potential reasons for this. One is that families who can't eat together may be especially busy or stressed, and therefore have little time for anything other than convenience foods. As you know, the more convenient a food is, the less healthy it tends to be. For example, there are very few places where one can go to a drive-in window and get a good-tasting healthy meal. It makes sense to have family dinner together as much as possible, but when this doesn't work, find ways to eat quickly and conveniently, but with healthy foods.
As I mentioned before, there is very helpful nutrition guidance available on the Internet. A good website is nutrition.gov.
Moderator: I have found that having my teen help shop for groceries and help prepare meals means that they are more likely to be there for family dinners and to eat more healthy.
Brownell: This is an absolutely terrific idea. We as modern human beings are often very distant from our food and from the origins of our food. Our foods tend to look so unlike what comes from the farm that Dr. Frankenstein would be impressed. Having a child involved in the shopping and preparation of food is a very good way for her or him to be in touch with what food is and how important it can be to good health.
Moderator: And if you are lucky enough to have some space to grow some veggies or fruits, get them involved in that, too!
Moderator: Do teens have any special nutritional needs?
Brownell: Teens do have special nutritional needs, because they are growing and developing. But basically, teens should be aware they must eat enough healthy foods to have a vigorous body, but should also avoid too much of foods high in fat and sugar. Nutrition can get very complicated, but it also possible to distill it down to its basic components. If a person eats lots of fruits and vegetables and avoids junk food (most people understand what this means), you may be 80% or 90% of the way to a really good diet.
Member: What age is too young to diet?
Brownell: I am inclined to say that "dieting" is not good at any age. What is good is healthy eating in the service of well-being, and not in pursuit of thinness. Dieting, and the food restriction it connotes, can be especially harmful to young children. It can lead them to a lifetime of unhappiness with their bodies, aspirations to look like the anorexic models and actresses that they see on television, and general unhappiness.
It is best if children can learn that food is their friend, and can focus more on increased amounts of healthy foods rather than restricting the unhealthy foods. The typical American does not like his or her body, no matter how good they look to someone from the outside. This is the background that all children will face. It is important for parents counteract these messages by helping children celebrate their bodies rather than to consider the body bad.
If a child is overweight, parents might consult with a pediatrician and come up with a healthy eating plan, but again, focus more on health than weight.
Member: My daughter seems to go through weird eating phases. One week it's all yogurt. The next week she is vegan. Then it's, "I need to eat proteins." Then it's all salads followed by a week of Oreos and milk. One week she went on a pickled beet binge! Should I be concerned about her weird eating habits or does it all work out in the end?
Brownell: It will be important to learn your daughter's motivation for making these changes. If her diet is so chaotic and she wishes to lose weight, or because she's heard something about food having miracle qualities, she should be educated immediately on having a balanced, reasonable, but good tasting diet. Having pickled beets, yogurt, or any other food exclusively is not healthy because the body is deprived of nutrients that those foods do not provide. Once again, balance is the key concept. If a child can be convinced that in order to provide their body its best fuel you must get a mix of nutrients, that can help her stay away from bad diets.
Moderator: Do you have any advice for helping teens who need to follow a special diet due to health issues (diabetes, celiac disease, etc.)? Teens want to fit in and not be perceived by their peers as different or weird.
Brownell: It can sometimes be very helpful to meet with a registered dietitian. Dietitians are very skilled at helping people figure out how to live with different diets. Such a person can be very helpful in judging what types of common foods a person can eat and still maintain her special diet. Ultimately, it is nice if teenagers' who have special diets know a range of foods they can eat, but also are aware of what can happen if they stray too far from the optimal eating plan.
Member: I'm afraid that bullying about weight will lead my teen niece to crash diet. What can I do to help her feel better about her body image?
Brownell: A very important message that parents can deliver is that social injustice occurs when people are evaluated by how they look. It is obviously the case that our society DOES evaluate people for how they look, so children need to be protected from this so they do not come to believe that their worth as a person is established by their physical appearance.
With that said, obesity can have negative health consequences, and it does represent a social disadvantage. Therefore, parents can be very helpful working with their child to develop a healthy eating plan that focuses on balance and good nutrition, knowing that weight loss will likely follow once a healthy diet is established.
Also, a parent whose child is bullied because of weight has every right to step in and speak with school officials about this behavior. It is not acceptable for children to tease others based on physical attributes. If the bullying becomes a real problem, school officials need to step in and the parents of the bullies should be informed.