Junkfood Science: When food fears and healthy eating beliefs grow to an extreme

June 16, 2007

When food fears and healthy eating beliefs grow to an extreme

No article will probably be more upsetting to read than this one. It examples what can happen from unsound fears — about obesity; foods and especially “processed” foods, sugars, and fats; chemicals, toxins, and modern medicine — and staunch beliefs in healthy eating and alternative modalities. While this is an extreme example, it deserves our attention because variations of such beliefs and fears are so common across this country and wrecking havoc on the health and wellbeing of countless children and young people, but aren't always recognized. Nutrition scientists, medical professionals and eating disorder experts will find most unsettling that even when confronted with this tragic case, popular fears and myths about food and obesity continued to be voiced.

I need to warn you, it’s a long article, of more than 6,000 words, and reads like a roller coaster ride that will leave your stomach heaving.

Diet From Hell

Health food was always on the menu at the small south Scottsdale [Arizona] apartment where Blair and Kimu Parker lived with their three children.... Fresh vegetables, especially carrots. Rice and nuts and fruit. Soy cheese, tofu-egg sandwiches. Kimu could do wonders with tofu and the right spices. Lunch was the same, but less — and sometimes they skipped lunch. Dinner was usually light. Snacks were rare, but the children were allowed healthful chips and imitation ice cream. The Parkers believed in feeding their kids no more than just enough.

The Parkers were extremely concerned about child obesity, one of the greatest health scares of our time. They shuddered at the thought of the saturated fat, growth hormones, sugar and toxins in typical American fare. Blair was an armchair nutritionist who felt it was his responsibility and right as a parent to feed the kids the most healthful foods possible....

Except for the seizures. All the kids had them at times... Doctors told the family then that the children's diet was inadequate, but the Parkers believed they knew best, thinking the real culprit was epilepsy. Sure, their kids were small. The Parkers knew that. But they thought it was because the kids didn't ingest the steroids in cattle and other meat sources....

They used all manner of food supplements for the problem, such as Garden Of Life's Perfect Food, which is powdered vegetables, grass, seeds, seaweed and nutrients. The Parkers fed their children carefully selected, low-calorie food that was much different from the fatty, sugar-laden fare typical American kids gorge on.

....the Parkers didn't call 911 on the night of April 22, 2005, when little Zion began having terrible seizures. Instead, they called Windy Skeete, a Wisconsin woman with mail-order certifications in naturopathy and herbs.... Hospital workers and police bore a heartbreaking sight when they laid eyes on Zion [age 3], who weighed 13 pounds [the average weight of a 3 MONTH old]. Doctors at Phoenix Children's Hospital compared her condition with that of a starving Third World child....

This reporter went on to editorialize that the family ate far better than the average American family because their children didn’t eat Lucky Charms at breakfast, or hot dogs and fries at lunch. “The healthful cuisine may have put the family at less risk for diabetes, cholesterol problems or high blood pressure,” he wrote. He went on to say that such healthy cuisines:

[M]akes some sense, considering the increasingly strident warnings about obesity and how meat contributes to the risk of heart disease and strokes.... Recent statistics show as many as 66 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in America are overweight. President Bush recently called child obesity a “costly problem" and helped kick off a new commercial starring Shrek and his donkey sidekick, who goad kids to get off their butts and play outside. Former President Clinton last month parroted the frightening (though unproven) mantra of fat-fighters who say Americans run the risk of “raising the first generation of children to live shorter lives than their parents."

Considering the hype, it's understandable that the Parkers were so concerned about keeping their children thin. At Kimu Parker's trial, no evidence was raised that the parents withheld food with the intent of torturing their children. They didn't hit their kids, except for an occasional disciplinary spank. It was a loving home, by all accounts. The Parkers were trying to give their children a long and healthy life.

If such heartbreaking actions on the part of parents are considered sensible and understandable responses to the government’s anti-obesity programs and the intense promotion of “healthy” eating and fears about bad foods, then why is no one holding them — government health agencies, politicians, special interest groups, diet doctors and alternative practitioners — accountable?

Even in this tragic situation, the reporter went on to write that “overfeeding” children is worse, after all popular wisdom says “fat kills.” In fact, he opined that these parents had the right idea:

Strange as it may seem, adopting some — though obviously not all — of the Parkers' diet would probably improve the average American's health.... Americans eat too many saturated fats and trans fats, which boost a bad form of cholesterol that clogs arteries. We eat too much sodium, which may raise blood pressure. We eat too much, in general. Obesity has become an epidemic in the eyes of some experts and... being even a little overweight leads to an early demise.

...True, studies do show it's not good to be obese, or even overweight. But the research can be contradictory or interpreted loosely.... The point is, concern about child obesity and nutrition is warranted — but there's no need to get extreme. Children who are malnourished face a far greater — and more immediate — health risk than overweight children.

With such a gobblety goop of misinformation, it’s not surprising that this article gave so many mixed messages. When has “Be afraid, but not too much” ever worked as a safe and effective health message? Never, of course, because it completely disregards how people naturally react to fear. And when afraid, no amount of risk is worth taking. With today's escalating scares reaching extreme proportions, it shouldn't be at all surprising that fears and reactions are reaching extremes, too.

Once people believe or fear something, it’s also incredibly hard to reach them and help them see the truth. As anyone who works in healthcare and tries to debunk quackery knows, people react in anger and disbelief and will rationalize even the most incredible things. Perhaps, the saddest of all about this saga was that no amount of teaching and experience could break through these parent’s fears and beliefs....even when their first child, Lily, died the same way! Yet, these parents didn’t seek medical care then, either:

[T]he Parkers didn't have much faith in doctors. They shunned vaccines. [The father] worked but didn't buy health insurance, which didn't matter because the kids didn't go for checkups. Lily had been born with the help of a midwife and had never seen a doctor. The Parkers didn't even take the kids' temperatures; thermometers contain mercury, and mercury is dangerous.

The Parkers didn't call for help after Lily's first seizure. Or the second. Or the fifth. The seizures seemed to escalate in strength. The Parkers tried massaging the little girl. The self-fashioned experts on herbal medicines gave her one-sixth of an adult dose of valerian and passion flower in an attempt to relax her muscles.

One point in this story may help serve as a cautionary note to parents and friends. These parents isolated themselves from anyone who didn’t share their beliefs — something very common among those who get most caught up in beliefs and fears. They come to distrust anyone else. When all we hear and read is from those who believe as we do, it’s impossible to gain a balanced perspective and to see the truth. It also makes us more vulnerable to those taking advantage of us and manipulating us with fear.

According to this article, by the time the neighbors realized what was actually happening to the children, the nine year old was only 3 feet 4 inches tall; and the eleven year old was 3 foot, 9 inches — both an entire foot below normal for their age! In contrast, their father and mother were tall, 6-5 and 5-6, respectively. Since the children have received help and are under the care of foster parents and given enough to eat, they’ve grown, filled out and none has had a seizure.

Medical professionals have long recognized that even semi-starvation and deprivation of food among babies and young people have serious long-term effects on their health. The 9th International Congress on Eating Disorders, held in New York City on May 4–7, 2000, also looked at the long-term effects of disordered eating. This was heartbreaking to read in this article:

Though the Parker kids were getting enough to eat, finally, they must have feared that the situation could change at any moment. At the hospital and at home with the Russells [foster parents], the older children hoarded food. The Russells sometimes found a box of cereal or a bag of chips hidden in the children's room.

Regardless of how food fears begin or why restrictive diets are pursued, nutrition professor Carol Johnston said that “restricting the diet in almost any way tends to increase the chances for a nutritional deficiency,” a point well-recognized in the medical literature. Parents may give children dietary supplements to try and make up for the deficiencies, she said, “but those supplements aren't regulated by the government and may not contain the necessary quantities of nutrients,” she said. While noting she herself was a vegetarian, she added: “It's better to feed kids a wide variety of food, including animal products, to make sure they're getting the right stuff in their growing bodies. Humans evolved to eat meat, a fact evident to scientists because of our short colons.”

Then, in a complete disconnect, she said kids today are eating badly and that parents who feed their kids fast food and processed foods are abusing their kids, too:

“But far more common is over-nourishment on fast foods and processed foods. Millions of Americans limit their options by regularly choosing food that isn't good for them, and it's so convenient and cheap that they eat a lot of it. So do their children. “Parents are abusing their kids in a manner we don't understand yet," Johnston says.

Professionals don't all research the facts and many believe the same political rhetoric we all hear in the news. But for those who do, this article may leave them feeling in despair at how to help break through this climate of fear and help prevent more cases like this one. The article did end on a positive note, though, with news of a healthy, plump and happy baby.

As hard as this article was to read, it highlighted the importance of helping people understand good science and of the senseless harm resulting from this war on obesity and today’s endless pursuit of health at all costs.

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