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Eating Disorders On the Rise in Young Kids: Can Healthy Family Eating Help?

healthy vegetablesSunday’s LA Times ran a Q&A with Dr. David Rosen, professor of adolescent medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, about what he believes is a growing problem of eating disorders among young kids and adolescents. He explained that while there are no exact numbers for children, “in 2009, the government published data that showed that kids under 12 were the fastest-growing population of patients hospitalized for eating disorders.”

What’s going on?!

With childhood obesity on the rise, have we gotten so wrapped up debates about how we feed our children (e.g., school lunch reform, hide vegetables, don’t hide vegetables), that we’re creating dangerous food anxieties in our kids? Is our obsession with thinness and weight loss catching up to us? Are we just now noticing something that’s been going on forever?

Or have we lost the script on how to have—and nurture—a healthy relationship with food?

I’m no statistician, but anecdotally, it seems that the anxiety around feeding our kids is incredibly high. Some, like Sarah Palin, feel that the conversation around healthy eating is a part of the problem, that the media and government are creating “hype” around an issue that’s best left private between families. What Palin and her cohorts are missing is that the conversation didn’t politicize food. Rather, the industrialization of our food supply did. The conversation is merely a reaction. A reaction that may not be so public or involve the government to such a great extent if we could rely on safe food made humanely and not contaminated with synthetic food dyes and leaching chemicals like BPA added to cut costs for food manufacturers.

It’s no wonder we parents are anxious about our food. The constant chatter about what’s healthy, what’s safe, what kids should and should not eat, can be overwhelming. Sadly, the state of our food industry being what it is, some of these anxiety provoking conversations are necessary. It’s important for us to know how to access safe, affordable food. But some are not. Though I believe, for example, that Jessica Seinfeld‘s intentions are good, the idea that we have to do extra work to get our kids to eat healthy and get “enough” of their veggies seems ludicrous. Can’t we just encourage families to eat vegetables and leave it at that?

In fact, isn’t it all pretty simple in the end? Most of our food anxieties–the ones that don’t come from within–go away with a return to simple, natural eating. If you feed your family whole foods with an emphasis of fruits and vegetables, most won’t have to worry about a high risk of obesity. If you know where your food comes from, you won’t have to worry about food safety issues the same way. If you cook most of your meals and share them at a family table as frequently as you’re able, your child will experience the powerful joy of food.

People say that eating this way is a luxury–that you have to have time to cook and more money for whole ingredients or even organic ones—but that’s a myth. Nobody is expecting you to be a super parent. A peanut butter sandwich or scrambled eggs with frozen peas is as affordable and healthier than take out. And eating locally and in season is the cheapest way to eat. A little research on recipes, the most affordable ways to eat organic and a well-stocked pantry of foods that can turn out dinner in 15 minutes will get you a long way.

A return to cooking and a natural, whole foods diet turns food from something that we work against into something that we celebrate. The result is better for our bodies and also our attitude towards food. What would the statistics look like if our kids grew up in a world where cooking (and maybe even growing food!) wasn’t an inconvenience, rather a joy? Or where food wasn’t something you buy altered with chemicals, rather prepared and shared with loved ones?

I have no illusions that teaching kids to love healthy eating is an answer to the rising incidence of eating disorders among young people. (Even people with healthy eating habits can have body image issues–believe me, I know!) But I can’t help but wonder if it might be a small (very small?) part of it. And with these new scary stats, why not do what we can to help kids feel good about their bodies and the food that sustains them.

What do you think?

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