Sunday, July 6, 2008

Response and Responsibility

As a young woman I was innundated with messages about dieting. My mother was the prime messenger but she was merely carrying the societal banner that said I needed to be thinner. My pediatrician lectured me each time I went in no matter if it was for a sore throat or a regular check-up and made suggestions like choosing sherbet instead of ice cream. Ironically, we rarely/never had ice cream in the house and would go out for a cone maybe 3 times a summer so making that change wasn't going to make much of a difference. I usually ended up crying in his office and my mother would then lecture me for being too sensitive. My mother was constantly on a diet herself (as she is to this day) and our house was full of low-cal bread, skim milk, fresh vegetables, non-fat cottage cheese and skinless chicken breasts. My mother is a good cook and we ate dinner each night as a family. Every meal had a protein source--usually chicken, turkey or occasionally steak all baked or cooked on the grill, a carbohydrate--usally rice or baked potatoes, and a green vegetable or two. We rarely had dessert. If I reached for seconds my mother would ask me if I "really needed that?" There were snacks in the house and even occasionally store bought cookies though my mother would make sure to point out that they were for my thinner brother, not for me. Is it any wonder that I started to sneak food? To hide it under my bed and to buy it myself when I had access to pocket money? I was a growing child and I was being fed non-fat fake food in quantities that were probably too small for what my growing body needed. Yes I was heavy and I continued to get heavier. I hold no grudge against my Mom. I know she was doing this from a place of love and wanted to prevent me from struggling with weight in the ways she has all her life. She even states that one of the prime reasons she chose to breast feed was that she had heard that breast fed children were more likely to be thin as adults. I never had a chance to develop normal eating habits. I learned how to diet and how to sneak food.

I wish there was some way I could help prevent this from happening to someone else. I wish there was a way I could communicate some of what I've learned about food and fat and eating to the young women who are just beginning their relationships with food. Last week Sandy on Junkfood Science did her usually brilliant job of dissecting a recent item in the news. She writes about Bodyworks, the Department of Health and Human Services program to prevent obesity for "tween" girls (aged 9-13) which touts itself as a plan to teach healthy eating that is not a "diet." In reality it is a restrictive eating plan that makes food the enemy and encourages parents to provide inadequate food intake for their children.

You should definitely read the whole article, but here's a quick summary of the numbers that Sandy came up with.

Even if the girls are allowed dessert, a full day following this “healthy” meal plan would provide them with 902.45 calories — about one-third (37.6%) of the daily calories needed by girls this age and activity level, according the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutritional Research Center at Baylor, used by the Dietary Guidelines.

Equally troubling, even if the girls are allowed dessert every day, this “healthy” eating plan provides a total of 17.37 grams of fat each day, about 7% total fat, based on their daily calorie requirements. This is about one-fourth of the total fat they need each day. Remember, even according to the Dietary Guidelines, children this age need 25-35% of their calories to come from fat. The total fat in a day’s worth of these “healthy” meals is less than the saturated fat advised by the government for adults with heart disease.

Any girl whose parents follow this program is going to be literally starving and she will do exactly the same things I did as a child whose food was restricted. She will sneak and hoard food and develop an unhealthy relationship with eating and her body. If she's lucky she won't develop a severe eating disorder but she certainly will feel shame for not conforming to the societal norm, for failing to follow this "healthy eating plan."

I wish I knew a better way to get this message out. I wish I had a plan and a platform for talking to more parents than just the ones I work with about how they feed their children. I wish I could make everyone who has a baby read Child of Mine and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Familyby Ellyn Satter.

I wish no young girl would ever have to learn that food and hunger are to be fought against and that her body is somehow wrong.

In the meantime since wishing doesn't get me very far, I am going to look for a way to write to the Depeartment of Health and Human Services and express my displeasure at the fact that my tax dollars are supporting development and distribution of a program such as this!

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