Food for thought

Many concerned parents will not drink in front of their teenagers in an effort to discourage the practice, but some parents will disparage their own bodies or that of their partner's without a second thought. Mothers who comment, "I'm so fat, it's disgusting," when they are anything but, and fathers who remark, "Honey, you look terrific, did you lose weight?" can have a significant effect on an impressionable teenage girl.

Dr. Giosi Di Meglio, a physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine and Pediatric Gynecology, at The Montreal Children's Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) notes, "We're basically bringing up a whole generation of teens and young girls with body image issues."
When a patient with problems comes to see her, Di Meglio does an evaluation and discusses issues surrounding eating and body image. In more serious cases a therapist and nutritionist may become involved and work with the teen and the family. Di Meglio is also active in the community, training teacher's groups, social workers and physical education instructors to recognize the signs of an eating disorder and how to intervene.

"What we tend to see more often than full-blown eating disorders is disordered eating," says Di Meglio. "While these teens may not be at immediate risk for a severe illness, they are still damaging their bodies and minds through such activities as yo-yo dieting and starving/bingeing patterns." In actual fact, teens with disordered eating patterns may be lowering their metabolism to the point where they gain the pounds they are so frantic to lose.

Anne-Marie Martinez, MUHC Marital and Family Therapist and Nurse at The Children's, agrees there is an extreme pressure on girls to get and stay thin. Mothers, often plagued by their own body image issues, may encourage their daughters to lose weight when their size is actually within the norm for their age and development. Sons aren't immune from the pressure either. "We will start seeing more boys with eating problems as society's preoccupation with the ideal body progresses at the rate it's progressing now," she adds.
Nutritionist Peggy Alcindor points out parents and girls don't understand that as an adolescent approaches puberty she may put on some weight before having her growth spurt. They don't realize that this is a normal process that culminates with menstruation starting. Parents need to educate themselves about this and pass on this information to their daughters in a reassuring manner.

Another big part of Alcindor's task is correcting misconceptions about nutrition. She notes that "the teen years tend to be a time of extremism, and a young person might read of a new diet and follow it to the nth degree, without realizing that by cutting out an entire food group, such as proteins and fats, one might put one's health at risk. Furthermore, most diets are not appropriate for adolescents and target specific adult populations."

A teen that newly embraces vegetarianism may give up meat as a "jump start" towards eating less or eliminating food groups perceived as "fattening." But even where this is not the case, teens need guidance to ensure they adopt a diverse and well-balanced diet.

On the other hand, obesity in teens has become a major problem. "This may be due in part to the fact that in general teens are bombarded by poor food choices," says Alcindor.

Good examples are the vending machines in high schools, or advertising and incentives to buy fast-foods, directly aimed at teenagers. "Ideally, the same sort of comprehensive treatment should be in place for obesity as is in place for eating disorders."

So what's a parent to do? Common sense is the best antidote. Seek help if the situation spirals out of control, encourage healthy eating and exercise by making it a family event that focuses on fun and not weight control. It's not only a matter of choosing healthy foods to put into our mouths, but choosing healthy words to come out of our mouths.

For more information please contact the clinic at (514) 412-4481.

by Peggy Niloff

01-01-07 - MUHC