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The Diet Trap

Carmen Kamrath

The alarming trend of young kids on a quest to be thin can rob your children of their very lives. Find out how you can help kids and parents avoid the snare of food-related addictions.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, the volume in the van increased 10 decibels as the girls socialized. A week away at camp was like a taste of heaven for these third- and fourth-graders, and as I kept my eyes on the road ahead, I honed in on the conversation behind me.

The conversation was innocent enough. Basically, the girls talked about their plans for the week ahead, but the discussion stalled when the swimming pool was mentioned. The girls fixated on the subjects of bathing suits, looking fat, and dieting. Dieting? Not at this age, I thought. But as the conversation grew, so did my awareness of the girls' knowledge of calorie counting and fat grams.

Sadly, these girls aren't unique. If you open any magazine or turn on the television, you'll see a variety of girls who typically have one thing in common. They're thin. Because of our society's obsession with appearance, younger kids are becoming more and more focused on body image and the desire to have what society advertises as the ideal. Because of this, the statistics on children and eating disorders are startling.

• 42 percent of first- through third-graders want to be thinner, according to
connectwithkids.com.

• 80 percent of fourth-grade girls are dieting, according to a recent California Department of Health Services study. And this statistic is echoed across the country.

• According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 80 percent of girls in grades 3 through 6 reported a displeasure with their bodies. In fact, young girls say they're more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their parents.

• 36 percent of third-grade boys have tried to lose weight, according to a report in Time magazine. A new disorder named "muscle dysmorphia," an obsession with the size and shape of your body, is on the rise with young males who admire the buff bodies seen on shows such as the World Wrestling Federation.

SOCIETY'S MESSAGE

Children, especially girls, at very young ages begin to equate attractiveness with thinness. Toys such as Barbie dolls and Disney's Belle give a message to girls as young as preschool that thin bodies are the physical standard. For boys, the message is mixed. While the muscular bodies of Batman and GI Joe characters boast one standard, slender men dominate magazine advertisements for companies such as The Gap and Calvin Klein.

Society has set a physical standard that children are exposed to on a daily basis. Unfortunately, a girl who compares her body to a fashion model's will inevitably feel fat in comparison. Most models weigh 23 percent less than the average American woman, and only 5 percent of women are naturally proportioned in the standards set by the fashion community. But kids don't know that. The unattainable body type that's portrayed through the media is what sets the stage for kids' distorted thinking about body image.

Athletics also stress the importance of having certain body types. Sixty percent of ballerinas and other athletes whose sports require a lean body have disordered eating and dieting practices. Some wrestlers fast for days just to make their weight requirements for a match. With athletic competition at an all-time high for children, the risk of eating problems also increases.

The diet industry takes advantage of the physical standards set by society, spending $33 billion a year in advertising. This marketing effort is geared to adults, but children and teenagers view the standard daily and are led to believe that self-worth is based on appearance.

THE PARENTAL MESSAGE

Society doesn't have a monopoly of influential power over kids and body image issues. What's said at home can also have a powerful impact on how children view their bodies. Studies show that teasing children about their bodies is a contributing factor in disordered eating. Often parents inadvertently contribute to their child's body image issues with comments they make or by their own personal weight and body image issues. Critical messages sent to a child about his appearance can set the stage for body image concerns and low self-acceptance. A parent's focus on body image can lead to a child's perception that his value is based solely on appearance.

In addition, parents don't always model healthy eating. Many families still force kids to sit at the table until they've eaten everything on their plates. This practice can cause a child to hate mealtime and later develop unhealthy attitudes toward food.

Parents need to accept themselves and come to terms with their body image issues. Children learn by example and all too often are educated about fat grams and calories from watching a parent's obsession.

Clinical psychologist Dina Zeckhausen states, "Five- and 6-year-olds worrying about being fat and counting calories are simply reflecting what they see around them every day."

THE HIDDEN DANGERS

What's the big deal? Is dieting really okay for kids? Are fat grams the enemy?

The reality is that children need fat in their diets to complete their neurological development through adolescence. A healthy girl should have 18 to 25 percent of her body weight as fat, and a healthy boy should have 10 to 18 percent of his body weight as fat, according to kidshealth.org. Eliminating fat from a child's diet can have long-term health effects.

When a child cuts fat and calories from her diet, her body looks for the fat needed to sustain life. Since the heart is the biggest muscle in the body, it's the first to be attacked, often resulting in irreversible damage.

Dieting is one thing, but when dieting becomes an obsession, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are likely to occur. Organs such as the liver and kidneys are often damaged as a result of an eating disorder; even bones can be permanently affected.

A DEEPER PROBLEM

The physical symptoms of an eating disorder can be detected and treated more readily than the emotional ones. Children and teenagers who struggle with eating disorders typically have underlying issues that can take years to resolve.

Eating disorders are a cry for help and a key that opens the door to deeper issues. An eating disorder isn't about food; it's about the pain and woundedness of life.

When a child feels that life is out of control, food is an element she alone can control. A child in an abusive situation may control food intake since she can't control the dysfunction around her. An eating disorder can be a way to express emotion in a home that doesn't allow feelings to be expressed. The perfectionist child striving for the perfect appearance may not eat and may exercise excessively only to discover that she can't be perfect enough. Or food may become the comfort tool for a child who's excessively teased.

Individuals who have eating disorders become obsessed with their food issues. People with anorexia spend 90 to 100 percent of their waking hours thinking about food, weight, or hunger. People with other eating disorders can spend from 20 to 65 percent of their day concentrating on food-related issues, according to Dan Reiff, therapist and author of Eating Disorders: Nutrition Therapy in the Recovery Process. Obviously for children, this type of obsession has academic and social consequences.

Every eating-disordered individual has his own story, and every story goes beyond the issues of food and body image. While there are many elements that can trigger an eating disorder, you can assist in the prevention and awareness of this disease that's growing among children.

A WAY OUT

Don't let a child's age cause doubt that a problem may be present. Become aware of these warning signs for eating disorders (from Focus on the Family's Dare 2 Dig Deeper series).

• Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, and dieting
• Excessive exercise
• Constant complaints of being fat in spite of normal or thin appearance
• Frequent comparison of body image or diet with others
• Withdrawal from activities because of weight or shape concerns
• Anxiety about being fat that doesn't diminish with weight loss
• Evidence of self-induced vomiting
• Frequent visits to the bathroom immediately after meals
• Obsession with appearance accompanied by perfectionist thinking
• Abnormal sleeping patterns
• Hyperactivity
• Refusal to eat meals with family
• Food rituals (such as eating food in a rigid sequence, eating a very limited selection of foods, cutting food into small pieces, blotting food with napkins to remove fat)

If you see these symptoms, work with parents to reverse the problem. First of all, create an environment that discourages disordered eating and body image. Develop an awareness of your behavior and not just your attitudes toward food. Who you choose for parts in a musical, who's called on in class, or who you ask to help with special projects can reflect your personal attitudes toward appearance. Strive to be inclusive as you allow all children to participate.

When serving food in your ministry, provide healthy options -- not just junk food. Teach kids about healthy living habits that include nutrition, exercise, and spiritual growth. Teach kids coping and life skills such as problem solving, decision making, communication, and stress management. Plan events that involve families eating a meal together, and educate parents on the importance of modeling a healthy lifestyle. Provide opportunities for kids to develop relationships with each other and significant adults in your church.

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