Junkfood Science: <i>Junkfood Science Weekend Special:</i> Why are we surprised?

December 09, 2006

Junkfood Science Weekend Special: Why are we surprised?

The news recently reported:

Anorexia begins at five

[Australian] children as young as five are being diagnosed with anorexia as experts blame stress and a national obsession with obesity for a shocking rise in the number of NSW youth being treated for the illness....Since 2001 there has been a 20 per cent rise in the number of children younger than 18 being admitted to the hospital with anorexia....

Dr Kohn said the hospital [Children's Hospital at Westmead] was now treating children aged between 7 and 11. In children that young, anorexia is as common among boys as it is in girls although, after 12, females are at least 10 times more likely to develop the illness. The physical impact of the disease is much greater on pre-pubescent children because the malnutrition coincides with the period of peak growth and development.

Television shows, cartoons, websites, games and toy figurines had promoted a "thin" ideal among children, Dr Kohn said. A focus on the obesity epidemic could also fuel eating disorders.

Eating Disorders Foundation executive officer Greta Kretchmer said the focus on obesity and eating the right food had created a backlash. "When you have some people who have perfectionist tendencies, it leads to them trying to do it too well by cutting out all fats, all carbohydrates, all dairy," she said....

It may seem unimaginable that such young children have become so frightened of getting fat and are afraid of their food and to eat. But it really isn’t when you stop to realize what they are being taught.

Even preschoolers cannot escape the nonstop barrage of “eat right and be fit” messages that have been instituted to address “childhood obesity.” Saturday morning cartoons are now devoted to these themes, such as Nickelodeon’s “Lazy Town,” PBS' “Boohbah” and the Disney Channel's “JoJo's Circus.” Ronald McDonald is pushing fitness and even the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street and Barney tells kids about eating “right” and that his favorite treat should only be a “sometime food.” Children’s programming is filled with examples of the fat children being made fun of and ridiculed.

Across the country, there are programs for toddlers to teach them “the importance of good food choices, the right portion sizes and exercise,” such as Trim Tots in Des Moines, Iowa. And even fitness centers have opened to “prevent” children from becoming fat by teaching them “about healthy diet and working out,” such as My Gym in Maine for children 6 weeks of age through 6 years.

Today’s children can’t escape these messages when they go to school, as they’re pumped into every classroom on Channel One, cafeterias are papered with eating right charts, they count calories in math class and calories in gym class, and in many schools they’re weighed and graded on how they measure up.

Considering just the extremes of diagnosed anorexia, which is in itself life-threatening with the highest mortality of any psychological illness, overlooks even larger concerns emerging from this environment....

It is not only anorexics who are restricting and cutting out vital calories, fats, carbohydrates, dairy and meats from their diets. Almost half of all first graders and 90 percent of high school girls are already dieting, afraid of getting fat and afraid of foods. A disturbing study by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, found that weight control and “healthy eating” messages have taught children that low-calorie and fat-free foods ARE good nutrition. Lots of adults believe that, too.

According to NHANES III (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), at least two-thirds of weight-conscious teenage girls, fat and thin, trying to eat “healthy” are now deficient in iron, calcium and other important nutrients. “Many teenage girls, already the most poorly nourished of any group in America, have stopped drinking milk or eating meat in their extreme fear of fat,” said Frances Berg, MS, author of Women Afraid to Eat. Children are also especially vulnerable to ideologies and scares of dangers promoted by various special interest groups and have come to believe that many foods, such as animal products or non-organic foods, are bad and harmful.

International child nutrition and eating expert and researcher, Jennifer O’Dea, MPH, PhD, from the University of Sydney in Australia, cautions that when working with young people, “negative messages such as sugar and fat are ‘bad,’ and use of the term ‘junk food’ contribute to the underlying fear of food, dietary fat and eating problems.” According to her research, health education messages and government dietary guidelines since the 1970s, with their “control your weight” messages, have resulted in an exponential rise in disordered eating and most young people have mistakenly come to believe that what is actually dieting is eating “healthy.”

“Positive nutritional messages” — as well-intentioned and intuitively correct as they may seem — are not benign. But in the inflated panic over “obesity” and need to eat “right,” we almost never hear the downsides. Never mind the problematic quality of the scientific evidence used to support many popular nutritional teachings.

Increasingly, childhood weight and eating experts are cautioning that nutrition rules are beyond children’s understanding and do not consider children’s mental and emotional development. Children cannot grasp the complexities of dietary guidelines, which most adults don’t even comprehend. The messages children take away are largely negative. Children are black-and-white thinkers and highly impressionable. When certain foods, such as fat, are restricted or they are told to eat them in moderation, they take it to mean all fat is bad. This problem with what children take away from even “positive” nutritional information was identified more than ten years ago. The 1995 Gallup Food, Physical, Activity & Fun: What Kids Think Survey, for instance, found that more than four out of five (81%) children between the ages of 9 and 15 thought eating healthy meant avoiding all high fat foods. And this phenomenon isn’t just in young children. A study of college-age girls published in the Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology found many had come to think of fat as evil and an analysis of their diets showed they were dangerously eating only 4% fat.

Dieting, let alone any diet that eliminates or restricts certain foods or food groups, can pose very real threats to the health of children and young people. And the size of the children is irrelevant; children of all sizes are affected. Many children are falling short of nutrients needed for normal growth that are supplied in “fattening” foods. A 1996 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health examining women 14 to 19 years of age, found a high prevalence of inadequate energy, protein, calcium, iron and zinc intakes among young vegetarians as compared to their counterparts who consumed animal foods. According to research from iron metabolism expert, Nancy C. Andrews, M.D., Ph.D, 20 percent of women of childbearing age and many children were at risk of iron deficiency anemia, especially those not eating meat.

“Low-fat” is a common theme in “healthy” eating messages. While there is evidence that restricting fat before age five could be dangerous, there’s little evidence it may be beneficial. This holds true even for older children. A study of more than 14,000 American children by researchers at the University of Nevada found that kids eating low-fat diets have lower intakes of vital nutrients — calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, fiber, most B vitamins, vitamins A and C and folate — compared to kids eating high-fat diets or a variety. And the Bogalusa Heart Study, which has followed more than 1,500 children in Louisiana since 1973, has found that those with low-fat diets were nutritionally inadequate in a number of vitamins and minerals needed for optimum growth and development, as compared to kids eating high-fat diets (>40% of calories).

The risks of insufficient calories and nutrients for children are well established in clinical studies, stunting physical and mental growth and development, and contributing to long-term health problems. Self-imposed dietary restrictions among otherwise healthy pre-teens in extremes can even slow puberty by half and delay bone age by as much as 5 1/2 years. Among male teens, growth retardation is a key characteristic of anorexia and a study in the February 2003 issue of Pediatrics found 75% of them never achieve their full adult height.

Of equal concern is the compelling body of evidence showing that restrictive eating and trying to control calories and eat “healthy” (or dieting) greatly increases young people’s chances of developing full-blown, life-threatening eating disorders, as well as suffering from life-long struggles with food.

For example, a 3-year study published in the British Medical Journal concluded: “Dieting is the most important predictor of new eating disorders.” It found adolescent girls, regardless of their weight, dieting at just a moderate level are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, with one in 40 developing an eating disrder after one year of dieting. And serious dieters are 18 times more likely to develop a new eating disorder within six months — one in five.

According to researcher and clinician David M. Garner, Ph.D., director of River Centre Clinic in Sylvania, Ohio, and adjunct professor at Bowling Green University and the University of Toledo:

One of the most important advancements in the understanding of eating disorders is the recognition that severe and prolonged dietary restriction can lead to serious physical and psychological complications. Many of the symptoms once thought to be primary features of anorexia nervosa are actually symptoms of starvation.

Look at that list of warning signs of an eating disorder in that news article above. You’ll be struck that they are not only the signs of the extremes of anorexia, but most are identical to the behaviors and experiences common among dieters, encouraged of fat children to lose weight, and often recommended and acceptable for everyone to “control” or “manage” their weight.

© Sandy Szwarc 2006

Next Weekend’s Special Feature: The faces of eating disorders not seen in the media.

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