Food for thought

American youth are in nutrition crisis


Special to the News

As an OSU Extension Service Nutrition Educator, I come into daily contact with and try to create enticing messages regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

Our bodies, both young and old, need exercise, whole grain foods, protein, iron, fiber, five fruits and vegetables a day, to eat our breakfasts within two hours of getting up, to consume calcium rich foods three times a day, eat very little refined sugar, fat, or sodium. These are all essential ingredients to healthy lifestyles, cancer prevention, the ability to think properly, prevent diabetes type 2, have a healthy heart, strong bones and a good attitude!

There are oh so many more reasons to eat right, and role model eating right for our kids. But, as much as I focus on these concepts, how often do I actually take that walk before breakfast — or at lunch instead of continuing to work right through until the end of the day?

Do I always provide a balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner for our busy family? How about a stress-free nurturing environment for these meals three times a day? I wish I could say yes!

I wish that when I read the information developed by the Weight Realities Division of the Society for Nutrition Education (SNE) I could say that yes, in our family, in our schools, and on our TV we always experience the encouragement of a health-centered approach to living.

Why? Because the realities of the habits we are developing as a society have been striking me as my pre-adolescent children talk about their perceptions of beauty — what is in, what they like to eat and drink, what is cool, and certainly what is not!

I was very moved by the truths Frances M. Berg points out regarding the changes in the lives of our children today as compared with the lives we lived as children in her acclaimed book “Growing Up Afraid to Eat.” There are many changes in the way kids eat today, changes in what they eat, how they eat, and when they eat.

I was very startled to find how familiar theses changes are to me. You may recognize the eating patterns: The fourth grader who eats only a small amount of each food on her plate, never feeling really satisfied, because she’s afraid of getting fat. The 12-year-old who comes home to an empty house and eats continuously on snack foods, crackers, cookies and chips; the teenager who skips breakfast and lunch, grabs a candy bar and Diet Coke after school, finds a way to skip the evening meal with her family and then goes on an eating binge in the evening. The wrestler who fasts and spits for two days before his match to make weight, then binges a day or two before restricting again.

Dysfunctional eating describes these types of disordered and disturbed eating behaviors, which disrupt normal life, sometimes up to the level of clinical eating disorders. Dysfunctional eating hasn’t been investigated in much detail, Berg contends.

She feels that today there’s such concern with what to eat, that how and when to eat are being largely ignored. Yet, when kids eat in normal ways, good nutrition is likely to take care of itself. How often do you sit down to a meal with your family, and have conversation rather than the news or a favorite TV show? What can you do to create the mealtime patterns you would like to experience?

Berg provided me with some very frightening realizations. She claims, “America’s children are afraid to eat. It’s a fear that consumes them, shatters lives, even kills.” According to Berg, who has been editing and reviewing worldwide research on obesity and eating disorders for the Healthy Weight Journal for the past 16 years, there are six major eating and weight problems affecting American youth today. These problems are interrelated and research statistics have indicated that all six of them are growing worse annually. This is what Berg’s research has indicated to be the unhealthy trends influencing today’s teens. Do you think we experience any of these interrelated health issues among our youth here in Hood River County?

1. Dysfunctional eating. Disturbed, chaotic, disordered eating has become the norm for kids. They are dieting, fasting, binging, skipping meals, under eating and overeating.

2. Undernourishment of teenage girls. Teen girls have the poorest nutrition of any group in America. Yet their widespread undernourishment and malnourishment go largely unnoticed, ignored by the policy makers who should care the most.

3. Hazardous weight loss. The methods kids use to lose weight can be very dangerous, including vomiting, smoking, fasting, and taking laxatives, diuretics, diet pills. They can have lasting harmful effects, and even kill.

4. Eating disorders. Extremely difficult to treat, eating disorders devastate families and claim many lives. But their prevention and treatment is often ignored. “The public is silent when young women die,” charges Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth.

5. Size prejudice. Large kids are easy targets for cruel and isolating taunts from their peers and others. Yet the harassment and stigma of size prejudice hurts youth of all sizes. In today’s milieu no one is thin enough or perfectly shaped enough to feel safe. And some, especially boys, are stigmatized because of small stature or thinness.

6. Overweight. More kids are overweight today than ever before, yet we seemingly have no means to help them. Prevention efforts other than scare tactics have not moved forward, perhaps because most people still believe weight loss is fairly easy and safe. Research proves otherwise.

The Society for Nutrition Education agrees that although the U.S. culture of today is youth-centered, in many ways it does not provide an environment that is nurturing or supportive for the healthy growth and development of our children. In fact, it nurtures serious problems. Appearance and, above all, thinness are the criteria by which girls are being judged. Magazines for teenage girls, and even television programs ostensibly designed for family viewing give training in “lookism” where the emphasis is on makeup, fashion, weight and how to attract boys, she points out. There is very little space given to non-competitive activities, hobbies, careers or healthy body image attitudes. Young readers are being sold to advertisers through articles and editorial copy linked to the ads. Boys, too, are being taught body dissatisfaction through advertising and the many new “muscle” magazines. The increasing pressures to be thin are vividly illustrated by a survey of Miss America winners from 1922 to 1999. These cultural icons dropped weight steadily from the 1920s, when it was in the range considered normal — to as low as a body mass index of 16.9. Nearly all winners since the mid 1960s have had a body mass index below 18.5, defined as undernourished by the World Health Organization. Does every local and state pageant promote this same ideal of female gauntness and hunger? Are there as many ways to combat these images in our schools and programs as there are locations that promote them? I was impressed by an assignment given to the youth at Wy’east Middle School by their counselor to search for the hidden agendas in TV advertising.

Awareness is key. Teenage girls have the poorest nutrition of any group in America. Taken as a whole, their diets are deficient in many important nutrients and in total calories. Yet this is a time in their lives when they have critical needs for growth and body development. Over half of teenage girls do not eat enough for health, energy or strength. They do not eat enough to feel or look their best.

Looking at iron intake, girls at the 25th percentile get less than half the iron they need, and at the 10th only one-third. In London, investigators recently found that one in four girls age 11 to 18 may be damaging their intelligence by dieting and depriving themselves of iron. “We were surprised that a very small drop in iron levels caused a fall in IQ,” said Michael Nelson, PhD, study author and senior lecturer in nutrition at King’s College, London. “We conclude that poor iron status is common among British adolescent girls and that diet and iron status play an important role in determining IQ.”

The body does not easily absorb iron. In fact, experts say 80 to 98 percent of iron may be wasted unless some iron from animal products is consumed. The calcium situation is even worse. Girls at the 25th percentile are getting only about one-third of what they need. The effects can be physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual. And they can be long- lasting.

According to The Society for Nutrition Education (SNE), if one is concerned about obesity, it is important to always encourage a health-centered approach versus the traditional weight-centered model. SNE’s research emphasizes healthy eating and physical activity for all children in a nurturing environment, and explains how to deal with the inter-relatedness of weight and eating problems in comprehensive ways that do no harm. The Society for Nutrition Education (SNE) is an international organization that represents the professional interests of nutrition educators in the United States and worldwide. SNE is dedicated to promoting healthy, sustainable food choices and has a vision of healthy people in healthy communities. If you wish to contact them for more information regarding health and nutrition policy and issues, write to the Society for Nutrition Education 9202 N. Meridian, Suite 200 Indianapolis, IN 46260.

It is their mission to enhance nutrition educators’ ability to promote healthful sustainable food choices and nutrition behaviors. If you are interested in finding out more about Hood River County’s OSU Extension Service and Oregon Food and Nutrition Education Programs, please call us at 386-3343.

We may have just the information resources or classes you need in either English or Spanish. Stay tuned for the next article that will provide the current research and guidelines for childhood obesity prevention and promoting healthy weight in children.

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