What Parents Should Know About Fast Food

There are many facts that every parent should know about fast food. Here are some for starters:

1. Fast foods are often heavy in calories

An adult would have to walk for seven hours straight to burn off a Super Sized Coke, French Fries and a Big Mac. Younger kids with smaller bodies are consuming an even greater proportion of unnecessary calories unless they are eating child-sized meals. But even then, these foods have way too many calories. In fact, this is why fast food is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. Left unabated, obesity will soon surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths in America. Moreover, even if one doesn’t die from obesity but simply lives with it, quality of life is often impaired. Obesity has been linked to: hypertension, coronary heart disease, adult onset diabetes, stroke, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, endometrial, breast, prostate and colon cancers, dyslipidemia, steatohepatitis, insulin resistance, breathlessness, asthma, among other serious diseases.

3. Fast foods are high in preservatives and low on nutritional value

4. Most nutritionists recommend not eating fast food more than once a month

5. Fast food is possibly linked to cases of increased inattention and hyperactivity in children

Even with the release of the educational film “Super Size M” in 2004, there has been no real decline in fast food sales in America. On the contrary: fast food consumption is on the increase! And yet, many parents still wish they could feed their kids three nutritious meals a day.

If you are one of these parents, here are a few tips on how to inspire your kids to avoid fast food:

Provide the Necessary Information
Explain why fast food is harmful. Fortunately, there are now some really excellent picture books that can help you get your point across to both young children and teens. The series entitled “Eat This, Not That” provides a wealth of information in a fun format that appeals to kids of all ages. Although one of the books is specifically addressed to young people (“Eat This, Not That, for Kids”), the other books are also highly accessible. Parents can read and discuss the material at the dinner table and/or just leave the book(s) lying around the house. “Dr. Shapiro’s Picture Perfect Weight Loss” is another wonderful educational aid, interesting to the whole family.

Condition Them to Like Healthy Foods
Cook healthy delicious food at home. The trick here is to get your child’s palette used to the taste of healthy food and to come to prefer it over the the taste of commercially prepared fast foods. If your kids are used to the fast food taste already, then help them make a gradual transition to a healthier diet. At first, offer foods that are similar to fast food – for instance, introduce fruit shakes in place of ice teas, sausages instead of hot dogs, pesto instead of spaghetti, tacos instead of chips. Gradual transitions can help kids adjust to a new diet more easily.

Avoid stuffing food in the refrigerator for your kids to heat via microwave whenever they are hungry. Microwaved food tastes a bit too much like fast food. Instead, as often as possible, sit down together and eat freshly prepared meals. Even the act of sitting down together is an important step in developing a healthy food consciousness, regardless of what is being served.

Introduce Your Kids to the World of Good Food
Consider introducing “fine cuisine” into your family culture. Get cookbooks out of the library and experiment with interesting, even exotic dishes. Bake up a storm. Teach the kids how to do the same, approaching them in ways appropriate for their age. When people taste really good food, they often become “food snobs” – preferring quality food to “fast food” any day. All the lectures about health and well-being can’t compete with the impact of the taste of really delicious food!

What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating is a way to get nourishment and sustenance; it is, for the most part, a pleasant and fulfilling act. Sometimes, however, eating becomes part of a disabling or even life-threatening disorder.

What is an Eating Disorder? 
As the term implies, an eating disorder is a mental health condition that is characterized by dysfunctional eating patterns such as overeating, deliberate starvation, binging and purging. Eating disorders are associated with extreme concern or anxiety related to one’s body shape, size or weight. Some family therapists have conceptualized eating disorders as illnesses related to issues of control, like addictions or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whatever the cause, an eating disorder is conceded as both a physiological and a psychological problem.

Who are at Risk? 
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders occur frequently among adolescents and young adults, although there have been reported cases of childhood eating disorders and eating disorders that occur during late adulthood. The disorders are more prevalent among women than men, although in recent years, men are suffering in greater numbers.

What are the Types of Eating Disorders?
Types of eating disorders may include:

Anorexia NervosaAnorexia Nervosa is characterized by the relentless pursuit of thinness despite severe negative consequences. People with Anorexia Nervosa are convinced that they are too fat or too heavy, even if objectively they are already underweight. They may therefore engage in excessive dieting, self-induced vomiting, overexercising, the use of diuretics and laxatives, and abuse of weight management pills. Alarmingly, people with Anorexia Nervosa are ten times more likely to die from the condition than those without the disease.

Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by repeated patterns of binging and purging. Binging refers to the consumption of large amounts of food in a short time, e.g. eating several plates of pasta in one sitting. Purging refers to the compensatory action to get rid of the food or calories consumed during the binge episode. Purging techniques include the ones people with Anorexia use to lose weight, e.g. self-induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics and overexercising. Unlike sufferers of Anorexia, people with Bulimia may have normal body weight.

Obesity. Obesity is a condition of excess weight – essentially the result of consuming more calories than are needed for energy. It can affect a teenager’s self-image and self-confidence and it can also affect his or her health. For instance, obesity is sometimes associated with the development of insulin resistance – a sensitivity to sugars in the blood. This condition can be a precursor to a more serious condition such as diabetes.

How are Eating Disorders Treated?
There are three steps to treating eating disorders.

The first step is the physiological or medical intervention. Eating disorders may be classified under mental health issues, but they carry with them serious medical effects. People with Anorexia Nervosa, for example, can suffer from severe malnutrition that serious and irreversible damage to vital organs occur. Eating disorders may even be fatal if not arrested in time. Therefore the first order of business is to restore the patient to an ideal weight, address nutrient deficiency, and treat the medical side effects of the condition.

The second step to treating eating disorders is psychological assistance. Counseling and therapy must be employed to address the psychological reasons behind the dysfunctional eating patterns. Eating disorders are related to dysfunctions in perception of one’s weight or shape. Often, patients suffer from low self-esteem, obsession about body weight, and a sense of helplessness about their situation. It is also not unusual for other mental health issues to develop because of the eating disorder, such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

The last step is maintenance to prevent relapse. Like people with addictions, those with eating disorders must consistently monitor their behavior even after treatment to prevent symptoms from recurring. Joining support groups, on-going family therapy, and education about proper nutrition and weight management are ways to maintain progress in recovery from eating disorders.

How Can You Tell if Your Child is Suffering from an Eating Disorder?
You will not be ablet o diagnose an eating disorder on your own. However, what you CAN do is take your child to a doctor or psychologist for assessment if you suspect that something isn’t right. Most parents are able and willing to do this when they see that their child is overweight. However, kids suffering from bulimia may be a totally normal weight. Kids suffering from anorexia may gradually lose weight and cover it up with clothing (and excuses). However, there are some red flags that can alert a parent to the need to have the child assessed. For instance: consuming large amounts of food without gaining weight is a red flag for bulimia. Playing with food on the plate, cutting it into small bits and moving it around, becoming increasingly picky as to what is fit to eat and clearly not eating much, may be red flags for anorexia. Other symptomatic behaviors include being very cold, growing a thin layer of hair on the skin, engaging in excessive amounts of exercise, buying laxatives and vomiting without being ill. Don’t get into a conversation with your child about whether or not he or she has an eating disorder. Instead, tell your child that diagnosis will be left up to a professional.

Anorexia

The eating disorder known as “Anorexia” has become so common, that almost everyone now knows what it is. When we think of anorexia, we think of excessively skinny people – sometimes with a skeletal appearance of skin and bones – whose lives are at risk due to malnutrition. And this is exactly what the disorder leads to. Anorexia is a condition that causes people to starve themselves.

Anorexia Nervosa used to be a condition that was most commonly found in individuals whose professions demand subscription to particular “body image.” Models, actors and physical trainer, for instance, have long suffered from eating disorders because their jobs require them to look a certain way.

Unfortunately however, the incidence of Anorexia Nervosa is climbing among the general public, with highest rate found in adolescent girls. Furthermore, onset age of the disease get lower and lower each year, with girls now as young as 7 years old succumbing to the illness. It may be that the way the media portrays attractiveness, the decreased focus on healthy eating habits, and the decrease in parental guidance as dual-income families and divorcing couples increase, all contribute to the rise in adolescent anorexia.

What are the Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an irrational obsession with having a thin body.  A person with Anorexia controls his or her body weight by limiting food intake and also by attempting to “un-do” eating by inducing vomiting, using laxatives or exercising excessively. When kids start restricting their diet to very low calorie foods, start obsessing about and avoiding “bad” foods like fats and carbs, cut up their food in small pieces and shuffle it around their plates, wear baggy clothing to hide protruding bones, claim they’ve eaten when they haven’t, exercise way too much, and so on, it’s time for parents to be concerned.

People with Anorexia suffer from a distorted body image. Regardless of their actual weight and height, or of their objective appearance in the mirror, they still feel that they are “too fat” and need to lose some weight.

Types of Anorexia Nervosa

There are two more common types of Anorexia Nervosa: a “restricting type” and a “binge-and-purge” type. Those who belong to the first type obsessively lose weight by fasting or eating extremely small portions. Those who belong to the second type alternate between binging (eating large quantities of food), and then later finding ways to remove the eaten food before the food is digested.

A Serious, Even Fatal Disorder 

Anorexia, like all eating disorders, must be taken seriously. It is not a “teenage fad,” but rather a serious health risk.  Aside from the psychological impact of the disease, Anorexia Nervosa can result to many serious physical conditions — even death. Starvation alone may result into cardiac arrhythmia, hypotension, gastric issues and low blood pressure — not to mention various complications resulting from many nutritional deficiencies. Anorexics may require hospitalization, and a full physiological therapy, before they can even start dealing with the emotional issues associated with the disease.

What Can Parents Do? 
Given the seriousness of this disease, what can parents do to protect their children?

Preventing Anorexia Nervosa in one’s home begins by promoting a healthy body image for the family. Contrary to what the media promotes, there is no one measure of attractiveness and beauty. Similarly, body size and shape doesn’t necessarily equate to health — ethnicity, bone/muscle mass and body structure must all be taken into account before one can be considered as underweight or overweight. While parents are recommended to be health and diet conscious in the home, they must also be affirming of their child’s natural beauty so as not to encourage a pre-occupation with body image. Neither parent should praise a child for being skinny. A thin body type is simply an inherited characteristic – as is a softer, bigger look. As long as your child is not eating poorly (i.e. living on a diet of coke and cookies, munching chips and ice cream instead of eating dinner), then just help him or her to learn the basics of dressing well. For instance, a “square” shaped child will look better in a certain type of sweater/pant or skirt combination than in a different kind of outfit – teach your adolescents about dressing to highlight their own good looks. Much can be accomplished with a few library books on the subject. If your child is actually eating poorly, encourage good eating habits without becoming so intense about it that the child swings the other way; many anorexics were once overweight and compensated by going too far in the other direction. When parents are too invested in the child’s “look” they may accidentally nurture the seeds of disease.

Even more important, however, is the emotional climate of the home. Kids act out their stress with eating disorders, so try to create and maintain a fairly low-stress environment. This means, work on your marriage (or even your divorce) so that there isn’t a lot of hostility being displayed, refrain from raising your voice or using very stringent punishments, keep demands light and reasonable considering the age of the child, bring laughter and love into everyday interactions EVERY day, and don’t get too stressed yourself. Although nothing a parent does can guarantee that a child won’t succumb to eating disorders, taking these steps can reduce the chances.

If you suspect that your child is developing symptoms of anorexia, then go with the child to a medical appointment to obtain a formal assessment. You can tell your child, “I’m not an expert. I don’t know if the way you are eating and the way you look is fine or not. I am, however, feeling concerned. So I’ve made an appointment for us to see Dr. So and So, who can tell me where things stand. If there’s no problem – great! I’ll leave you alone. But if there is any problem, then we can help you with it.” Such an appointment should never be optional. If you thought that your child’s lump on her skin was suspicious, you wouldn’t ask her to please come for a biopsy. You would TELL her that she needs to be seen by a medical professional. You would not allow your child to refuse to go, knowing that untreated cancer can be life-threatening. In the same way, you need to use all of your parenting power to get your child to a doctor when you suspect the life-threatening disorder of anorexia.

Only Eats Junk Food

Is your child a junk food addict? It’s not really surprising. Junk foods are readily available these days and can tempt anyone – especially children. While junk foods may be enjoyed as a special treat – as part of a birthday celebration or some other special occasion – regular ingestion of these products is unhealthy, leading to an array of issues ranging from cavities to diabetes. But how can parents get their children to enjoy real food that can truly nourish their bodies and souls?

If your child only eats junk foods, consider the following tips:

Start Early
If you can instill a love for healthy foods as early as toddlerhood, your child is less likely to jump on the junk foods bandwagon. After all, kids crave what their taste buds are used to. Introduce soft drinks, cakes and chips early in life, and you’ll be battling them for years. But introduce healthier alternatives like grains, seasoned vegetables, tender meats, cheese and yogurt, and fresh fruit to your young child, and they’ll enjoy these healthy foods for a lifetime. Since you have more control over your toddler’s diet than you will have at any point in the child’s life, it’s up to YOU to get your child started right with food. However, your child will also be exposed to your own diet and to the foods of others around him. If sweets and empty foods are being consumed by others (as they most likely are), don’t deprive your child! Rather, offer the occasional sugar-free look-alike (homemade cookies sweetened with juice, Stevia or agave), sugar-free candies and the occasional actual sugar treat. Junk food in moderation will not harm your child, just be careful that it is not consumed in excess.

Refrain from “Doctoring” the Food
Something that parents learn quite early is that making food sweeter increases its likelihood of being ingested. They put (sugar-based) ketchup on food and magically, their youngster eats it. They put chocolate chips on it, chocolate syrup in it, spoonfuls of sugar all over it and it suddenly becomes appetizing. Although most parents are aware that the sugar is not good for the child, they are just happy that the child is eating the good food along with the not-so-good food. In their mind, it is worth a bit of empty calories to get their child to eat some nutritious foods.

Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm to have the child eat something, parents have sacrificed long-term good eating habits for short-term meal solutions. They are soon dismayed to find that their child no longer likes anything that isn’t sugar-coated. Now they have a toddler who eats sweet cereal, chocolate milk, candy and french fries, but little that is actually good, normal, nutritious food. When the problem gets so out of hand that parents can no longer justify doctoring the food to make it palatable, they want to know how to retrace their steps and get their child eating right.

Serve Junk Foods Only When Kids are Full
Some parents believe that junk foods can be consumed as an occasional guilty pleasure. After all, an ice cream cone now and then can be a great treat. However, if you’d like to treat the family to occasional junk foods, try to do it after your child has eaten a full meal. This way kids won’t be tempted to eat too much of the bad stuff – as they have already eaten something. Allowing your child the occasional junk food treat – instead of letting junk food be the staple food of your child’s diet – will also make your child appreciate it more as the treat it is meant to be.

Limit the Processed Sugar in Your Child’s Diet
Research has shown that the more we eat sugar, the more we crave sugar. As most junk foods are rich in sugar, they are a natural choice to manage sugar cravings. To limit your child’s junk food intake, stick to sugarless alternatives (and there are many). To satisfy that sweet tooth, use dried fruits in moderation, fruit juices, Stevia (a herbal product), xylitol, palm sugar, coconut sugar and other low glycemic alternatives. None of these produces the sugar spike and sugar cravings that real sugar creates.

At first, your child may refuse to eat what you offer – don’t worry about it. In fact, you WANT the child to reach a state of hunger. Don’t worry – you’re child won’t let him or herself starve; rather, when hungry, he or she will be much more willing to try a new food. All food actually tastes a lot better when a person hasn’t eaten for awhile – when the person is really hungry. Now that the child has had even a small amount of real food, he or she will eat it again (because it was, at least, edible and perhaps even, good). Research has shown that after just one week of eating a food, it will start to taste really good, even if the person didn’t like it originally. For instance, a child who is used to drinking cow’s milk finds that cow’s milk tastes good. When offered a milk substitute for the first time (soy, rice, hemp or almond), the child will often balk. However, if cow’s milk is withdrawn from the diet and only the substitute is offered, the substitute will indeed indeed begin to taste good and normal, after only a few days. If the substitute is continuously given, then cow’s milk will be the unusual and odd-tasting food.

Using these principles, parents can re-train a junk-food addict of any age. However, the job is easiest with toddlers. Toddlers can’t help themselves to food, so they are totally dependent on what they are fed. As long as parents are willing to be firm and consistent, withdrawing sugar from regular meals and limiting it to rare snacks given at specified times during the week (i.e. the child gets a cookie snack in the afternoon daily, but never gets any other sugar in her diet), the child will soon be eating and enjoying real food!

Make Simple Rules
Instead of fighting with your child about junk food, make simple rules about its permissibility and stick to them. For instance, you can have a rule that candy is served only on Saturday – never at any other time. Or, you can have a rule that plain cookies and pretzels can go in a lunch box, while fancier cookies and pastries are for Sunday brunch only. Perhaps you want a rule that states that potato chips and colas are only served at family gatherings (birthday parties and celebrations). You can make any rule you like, but try NOT to make a rule that permanently and totally prohibits all junk food – such rules tend to cause kids to become obsessed with getting their hands on candy and other unhealthy snacks. Serving it in moderation at predictable times helps prevent obsession and other nasty behaviors like stealing other kids’ snacks. If children are served delicious healthy foods most of the time, they tend to have little craving for the junk.

Prepare a Healthy Lunch Box
If the school canteen has an array of tempting junk, try to provide school snacks from home. Eliminate the need to visit the cafeteria by packing your child a healthy snack box. Health food stores carry a large selection of delicious junk-food look-alikes and, if you have time to bake, you can control your own ingredients to make nutritious and delicious treats that your kids will love. They really won’t be pining for the canteen. Does your child yearn for cool packaging? Maybe you can even wrap your goodies in an appealing way. Here’s your chance to be creative!

Be Firm, Consistent and Patient
Don’t be swayed by your child’s tantrums and tears. Instead, simply remain calm and firm. No need to scream back! Just learn to say, ‘No.’ Don’t worry – as long as you don’t start yelling, your child will still love you plenty even if you stop feeding him or her tons of junk food. You needn’t be afraid of your child. You are NOT hurting your child by limiting junk to a small percent of the diet. On the contrary, you are helping your child be healthy life-long. Your child is too young to appreciate that right now, but YOU know the truth. Your child needs to learn to gracefully accept your guidance and limitations and is much more likely to do that when you remain calm, firm and consistent. Eventually, your child will stop protesting, settle down and enjoy his or her food. Patience will pay off.

Bulimia

Bulimia is an eating disorder – but one that is not necessarily easy to spot in one’s own child. Other eating disorders are more visible. For instance, pills almost anyone can recognize obesity – a condition in which the sufferer is significantly overweight. People can also often recognize cases of anorexia nervosa – the condition in which a person is severely under his or her ideal weight (and may therefore look painfully skinny and boney). However, it is not possible to identify someone with Bulimia Nervosa just by looking. The sufferer of this eating disorder may be a perfectly normal weight. It is not the WEIGHT that is disordered in this condition, but rather the way in which the person maintains that weight.  A bulimic (one who suffers from bulimia nervosa) eats way too many calories in one sitting (for example, a number of grilled cheese sandwiches, a full tub of ice cream, a box of crackers, a bag of chips and a plate of waffles). This episode of overeating is called “bingeing.” It is normally followed by feelings of panic (about gaining too much weight), shame and guilt and an intense effort to “undo” the eating behavior by engaging in excessive exercise or using laxatives to empty the gut, or inducing vomiting for the same purpose. Episodes of bingeing and purging (over-eating and then “undoing” the calories somehow) can sometimes occur many times a day. On average, people with Bulimia binge 12 times a week, consuming as much as 11,500 calories. Foods rich in processed sugar and fat, such as pastry, ice cream, bread and donuts are the most common objects of binges.

Bulimia Nervosa is more common than Anorexia, and affects girls more than boys.

Signs of Bulimia
Although parents can’t tell from LOOKING at their child that the youngster is suffering from bulimia, they may be able to discern a problem by observing their child’s behavior. Those suffering from bulimia usually feel a lack of control when it comes to eating. While most of us stop eating when we feel full, those with bulimia keep on eating to the point of feeling pain.  This inability to control their eating can be very embarrassing and typically bulimics try to hide their binging and purging.  Some typical symptoms that may indicate bulimia are:

  • Wanting to eat alone
  • Eating very little in public
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Disappearance of food
  • Hidden stashes of junk food
  • Eating large amounts of food without putting on weight
  • Excessive exercising
  • Using laxatives, enemas or diuretics

People with bulimia may also have physical symptoms caused by purging.  These include:

  • Puffy cheeks caused by repeated vomiting
  • Discoloured teeth caused by exposure to stomach acid when throwing up
  • Frequent fluctuations in weight
  • Calluses or scars on knuckles and hands caused by putting fingers down the throat to induce vomiting

An Impulse-Control Issue
Are sufferers of Bulimia Nervosa aware that their eating pattern is dysfunctional? Yes. However, they have difficulty controlling themselves; the act of binging and purging is a compulsion. In fact, many Bulimics report that they only stop a cycle of binging or purging when they feel physical pain. Otherwise, they can’t help themselves. They have a compulsion that is too strong for them to overcome, much like an addicts relationship to his substance.

Bulimia Nervosa has been linked to emotional stress as well as body image issues. Low self-esteem, a history of abuse, a difficult life transition, traumatic experiences and other stresses have been found to be higher in those suffering from Bulimia. In addition, there is a higher rate of bulimia in those who are drawn to a body-conscious hobby or profession like modeling, ballet, gymnastics or physical fitness training. It is not clear whether the activity and peer pressure found in the activity actually induces bulimia or whether those with bulimic tendencies (obsession about body image) may choose those activities to begin with.

A Serious Health Threat
Bulimia is a serious health issue. Chronic bingeing and purging can cause serious gastro-intestinal diseases. The purging (in the form of vomiting, laxatives, and diuretics) can lead to electrolyte imbalances, usually in the form of low potassium levels. Low potassium results in symptoms such as lethargy, confusion, irregular heartbeat, and cardiac and kidney dysfunction. In severe cases it can even cause death. Other effects of bulimia may include:

  • Weight gain
  • Constipation caused by chronic laxative use
  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Tooth decay
  • Chronic sore throat and hoarseness
  • Broken blood vessels in the eyes
  • Weakness and dizziness
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Acid reflux

Risk Factors
Bulimia generally begins in adolescence and 90 – 95% of those with the disease are women.  There is no single cause for bulimia but low self-esteem and poor body image are often contributing factors.  Some of the more common risk factors for bulimia are:

  • Dieting – people who diet on a regular basis are more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don’t.
  • Involvement in professions/activities that emphasize weight control – the pressure placed on gymnasts, dancers, models, actors, and other athletes to maintain a certain weight can lead to the development of eating disorders.
  • Low self esteem – this can be a result of abuse, depression, a critical home environment, and a desire for perfection.
  • Poor body image – young women are often influenced by our culture’s glorification of thinness and beauty.
  • Major life changes – bulimia is sometimes a reaction to stress, which can accompany a major life change.  Examples of major life changes may be; moving away from home, puberty, divorce, and the break-up of relationships.
  • Biological factors – since eating disorders run in families there is likely a genetic component.  In addition, research indicates that low serotonin levels play a role in bulimia.

Treatment for Bulimia
Treatment for Bulimia should be a combination of a medical and a psychological program. At times, an in-patient weight management program needs to be implemented alongside counseling in order to address the two critical aspects of the illness. Most often, however, bulimia is effectively treated on an out-patient basis. People do heal from this disorder. They may have relapses occasionally but when they learn effective stress-management techniques they can usually prevent relapses over the long-run. Seeking counseling and using self-help strategies are both important for long term recovery.

Psychotherapy is the main form of treatment for bulimia.  Specifically, cognitive behavioural therapy is often used to break the binge-and-purge cycle and change unhealthy thought patterns.

Medication such as anti-depressants may also be used.  These help to reduce binge eating and treat the depression that is often a part of bulimia.

Child Doesn’t Eat Enough

Eating problems are common among people of all ages. One concern that a parent may have is that his or her child is not eating enough food. Let’s look at the reasons behind lack of appetite and learn what parents can do to help.

If your child doesn’t seem to be eating enough food, consider the following tips:

It May be a Matter of Perception
Sometimes the child’s food intake is actually fine, despite appearances to the contrary. In fact, sometimes parents argue over whether there is or isn’t an actual problem. The best way to clarify the issue is to seek a medical opinion. Your pediatrician will compare your child’s weight gain against those of his peers and also against his own developmental curve. Let the doctor know exactly what the child eats (and doesn’t eat). She’ll put all the facts together to determine whether the child is ingesting sufficient calories and nutrients. and to see whether further investigation is warranted.

Consider Possible Medical Causes
A consultation with a doctor is important because, in addition to ascertaining the existence and severity of an eating problem, the doctor can diagnose underlying medical causes.  For example, certain intestinal bacteria might be at the root of the problem. Thyroid conditions and other metabolic problems might exist, making it seem that the child is eating less than he or she actually is. Food sensitivities, mood issues, anxiety and other emotional problems can also play a role in low appetite.

Of course, it might turn out that there are no medical reasons for the lack of interest in food. Sometimes a child just doesn’t enjoy food all that much. In that case, the doctor can speak to the child about the importance of eating breakfast and/or other meals, or eating larger quantities of food or making higher calorie food choices – whatever needs to be addressed. Kids are much more likely to take the doctor seriously than to listen to Mom or Dad on this subject. Many doctors will also refer a child to a nutritionist for specific instruction and support. Nutritionists and dietitians can help design an individualized child-friendly menu plan that provides adequate nutrients and calories.

Consider Alternative Treatment
If the doctor gives the “all clear” parents may still want to enlist the help of an alternative health practitioner. Naturopaths, homeopaths, herbalists and other alternative healers have different methods of assessment and treatment. They may uncover a biological process that the regular doctor doesn’t consider. They also have their own methods of intervention. Sometimes this route can make a positive difference.

Make More Child-Friendly Meals
Even if the doctor doesn’t follow up with professional intervention around menu planning, it may be important for the parent to consider the role of food preferences in the child’s eating problem. Sometimes the child doesn’t like the menu offerings.  Maybe he’d be happy to eat brown-sugar maple-flavored oatmeal for breakfast, but Mom is serving the “healthier” plain oats with a bit of salt added. Or, he might be interested in french fries and burgers, but Dad is making baked potatoes and meatloaf. Let’s face it – almost all children enjoy a different menu than their parents do. If a parent makes sure to offer the kind of food that a child likes – he or she will eat more of it! That doesn’t  mean go ahead and serve generous helpings of junk food! Instead, try using spices and flavoring to make food more enticing. Parents can enlist the help of a dietitian themselves, in order to get ideas on how to make healthy food that kids will actually eat.

Minimize Attention to Eating Patterns
Although parents can make a “mental note” about their child’s eating habits, it’s usually not a good idea to let the child know that you have serious concerns in this area until AFTER a doctor has also expressed such concerns. When arranging for a medical consult for an older child or teen, a parent can just say something like, “I don’t know if it’s me or you – but I’m wondering if your eating patterns are O.K. We’ll let Dr. Smith decide. I’ve made an appointment for Tuesday at 4 p.m. ” Before Dr. Smith’s announces a problem, the parent can just keep records of the child’s eating habits without saying much to the child about it. Children don’t tend to respond positively to parental urges to eat more or differently.

Consider Other Lifestyle Issues
The less your child exercises, the less he needs to eat in order to maintain his weight. The truth is that your child will be more interested in food if he gets out to play some sports, go for a regular walk, ride a bike or otherwise move around at least 30 minutes a day. Turn off the T.V. and computers for a half hour each day and show your child where the skateboard is!

Consider Psychological Causes
If you suspect that your child doesn’t eat enough in order to round up some concern and attention from you, then experiment with giving that youngster more attention. However, give him or her attention for everything under the sun – except for not eating enough. (As mentioned above, be careful NOT to talk to the child about eating more. When you see him not taking food or not finishing food on his plate, DON’T encourage him to eat just a little more or clean his plate. You are accidentally reinforcing inappropriate behavior when you attend to it.)

Some psychological issues go far deeper than behavioral problems. If your simple behavioral interventions fail to have a positive impact, there may be something else going on. In this case, a mental health professional such as a child psychologist or a child psychiatrist is the best one to diagnose and treat the problem.

Keep in mind too, that all children’s problems are worsened by conflict at home. See if you can “de-stress” your marriage (or divorce) with or without professional help. Also check your parenting skills – if you know that you are expressing excessive anger, take serious steps to address that problem; anger doesn’t cause any one specific developmental problem but certainly contributes to every one. Children can have mental health problems for purely biological reasons, but the emotional environment at home can affect the intensity and course of the problem.

Eats Too Much

The epidemic of obesity and weight-related issues among young people has reached alarming heights. Around 25 million children below the age of seven are believed to be overweight. Experts blame the modern lifestyle of fast food and computer games for the phenomenon, alongside the phenomenon of overworked parents who lack the time and energy to pay close attention to the food they are serving their kids, or those who simply cannot afford to do so. No matter what lifestyle factors are at play, the bottom line is that when kids eat more than they can properly burn off, they will weigh more than they should.

Obesity
Eating too much can lead to being a little overweight or significantly overweight. The term “obese” normally refers to a person who possesses a gross excess of fat in the body. Obese children often suffer harassment at the hands of their peers who may mock or tease them. This experience alone can leave emotional lasting scars. However, obesity also puts youngsters at risk for many serious and even potentially fatal diseases. According to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity increases the likelihood of premature death and disability during adulthood. Obese people are more likely than normal weight people to suffer heart attack, stroke, liver problems, diabetes, osteoarthritis and even cancer. Obesity is also linked to mental health issues, such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety disorders.

What can Parents Do?
Some children are food addicts. Despite their parents’ best efforts, the children eat too much and too often – with weight issues being the result. Nagging children does not cure their addiction – it just annoys them and makes them feel shame and guilt. Criticizing your child for his or her eating habits will likely just be a waste of time and can even damage the parent-child relationship. So what can parents do?

Avoid Strict Diets
Efforts to strictly limit caloric intake can backfire, turning kids into food thieves and/or rebellious eaters. It’s better to help kids learn to enjoy the right foods in the right amounts. Parents can refrain from serving foods that are rich in fat and sugar such as french fries, fatty cuts of meat, cakes and sodas and other white flour and white sugar products, replacing them with delicious foods that are healthier and less calorie dense. In fact, parents can offer vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean meat, dairy products, legumes and grains – but only when they are prepared in such a way that the kids will actually enjoy them. Foods that are real foods are much more difficult to consume in excessive quantities: they are naturally satisfying and filling. It is far easier to eat too many potato chips than it is to eat too many roasted baby carrots!

Many parents have discovered the secret power of spices: children will actually enjoy healthy foods when they are skillfully spiced; it’s the bland foods that lack appeal. Many international cuisines use spices that may not currently be in your cupboard but that are easily available in your local supermarket. Home-made desserts can be made with nut flours and coconut flours – products that are so nutritionally enriched that they actually reduce cravings. Borrow a few cookbooks from your neighborhood library, look online to get some new ideas for enhancing the flavor of your foods or take a cooking class – do whatever you need to do to introduce your children to nutritious AND delicious foods. If you are short on time (and who isn’t?), you can find amazing food that takes only a couple of ingredients and a couple of minutes to make. You can prepare meals in a crockpot that will cook throughout the day and be ready when you come home from work. The health food store may also carry some ready-made foods – but do read the ingredients; being sold in a health food store does not guarantee that the product is calorie wise or even nutritious.

Everything in the Right Time
In addition, try serving your children junk foods and sugary treats (pastries, sugar cereals and candies) in small quantities and ONLY on specific regular occasions (i.e the weekend or better yet, only on one day of the weekend!). Allowing kids to have a little bit of these treats helps reduce feelings of deprivation. No child should have to feel that any one food or one kind of food is too “fattening” to enjoy on occasion in small portions. Remember: feelings of deprivation tend to sabotage any healthy eating plan,leading to eventual weight gain.

Offer Them a Drink Before Meals
One way to get a child to eat a little less during meal time is to give him a tall glass of water five minutes before eating. The extra fluid can make him feel fuller even before he takes a bite. You may also consider giving a healthy snack before bigger meals in order to lessen your child’s appetite.

Serve Smaller Portions
Although there is no need to have your child track his or her calories, there is also no need to serve enormous quantities of food to your family. Kids get used to whatever their parents provide. Try shifting from the buffet, help-yourself style to fixed servings, preparing small portions already set for each member of the family. Or, go with the buffet style but encourage your child to notice how many servings he has had and how large they are. You can say things like, “You can have as much as you want, but just notice how many helpings you’ve taken,” or “Take as big a serving as you like, but just notice how much of your plate it covers – 1/4 or 1/2 or almost all of it.” Asking the child to notice what he is doing gives him the beginning of inner control. Often “mindless eating” – that is, not noticing – is the culprit behind unwanted extra pounds. You may also encourage your child to chew slower and take his time eating. Research has shown that it takes a while for the “stomach is full” message to reach our brains, so chewing slowly can help this message get to the brain before a person takes the next spoonful. Pausing between bites and waiting a bit between courses also allows the “full” message to get to the brain in time to stop a person from grabbing more food.

Exercise and Movement is Also Important
Try to get the family moving. If possible, enroll the kids in physical activities after school – swimming, karate, gymnastics, dance class, hockey and so on. Or, take them to the park to run around and play. Walk around the block with them if possible; walk wherever you can with them instead of driving. Don’t let them just sit in front of a screen all day. Provide a model for them as well: let them see you doing your stretches and exercises in your home. Remember – don’t nag your child or fight with him or her as this can lead to stress – which in turn leads to over-eating. Try to make physical activity fun and normal rather than some sort of punishment for a child who needs to lose some weight.

Consider Mood and Anxiety Issues
Is the increased appetite new for your child? If so, consider the possibility that your child is using food as a way to manage emotional issues. Perhaps the child is going through a stressful transition. Or perhaps she feels insecure about something. Understanding emotional triggers to eating can help parents manage their child’s eating habits by addressing the root causes. In some cases, psychological counseling may be more appropriate than a diet.

Get a Physical Check-up
Increased appetite can be a sign of an underlying medical condition; perhaps the body is starving for a particular vitamin or mineral. Consider taking your child to both a medical doctor and a naturopath for a thorough assessment. Dealing  with physical triggers to excess eating as early as possible may  help prevent more serious health issues from developing.

Your Child Needs Your Help
Kids cannot solve their overeating problems on their own. Their parents must help them – not only because the children may already be “food addicts” overwhelmed by their own cravings, but also because they lack skills, knowledge and ability to manage their own weight loss program. It is up to parents to become knowledgeable – whether that is through self-education or through the assistance of weight loss professionals like pediatric specialists or obesity specialists. You are also the one to see to it that your child gets the help he or she may need. If your own interventions are not helping, try to get your child professional help. Possible sources of help include your child’s doctor, a dietician, a nutritionist, a child psychologist or weight-loss clinic that treats kids and teens.

Habits

What’s the difference between a bad habit, a nervous habit and a compulsive habit? When should a parent be concerned about a child’s habit?

Bad Habits
Everyone has bad habits. Leaving one’s dish on the table is a bad habit – one that many kids (and adults!) have. Calling a sibling “stupid” or some other insulting name can be a bad habit. Slamming the car door too hard can also be a bad habit. A bad habit is any repetitive behavior that needs improvement. That behavior can be a small, annoying behavior or it can be a more serious problematic behavior. For instance, a teen might have a bad habit of calling home past midnight to say that he’ll be out later than expected, or, he might have a really bad habit of forgetting to call home at all and just showing up at 3 in the morning.

Parents can help their children overcome bad habits by using normal parenting techniques like teaching, rewarding and disciplining. If the child’s bad habit is interfering with his health or functioning, however, then professional intervention is a good idea. For instance, a child who is chronically sleep-deprived due to going to bed too late or who is doing poorly in school due to chronically getting up too late, may benefit from counseling or other appropriate therapy.

Nervous Habits
Nervous habits are bodily behaviors that aim to discharge stress or tension. Twirling one’s hair, biting one’s nails, rocking back and forth, shaking one’s feet while seated – all these actions are examples of nervous habits. Talking rapidly, running to the bathroom urgently, gulping down food, giggling inappropriately – these, too, can be nervous habits.

If a child has a nervous habit he or she may benefit from learning better techniques for stress reduction. There are children’s classes and groups for yoga and mindfulness meditation that can be helpful. Alternative therapies can also help. For instance, herbal medicine can come the system down and Bach Flower Therapy can relieve stress and tension. Parental nagging to stop the nervous habit, on the other hand, does not help at all – if anything, it might increase the nervous habit. If the habit is bothering the child or parent, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.

Compulsive Habits
While bad habits and nervous habits occur to some extent in almost everyone, compulsive habits occur only in those who have various mental health disorders. Eating disorders often involve compulsive activities like weighing oneself or cutting food into tiny bits. Certain kinds of psychotic disorders also have compulsive symptoms.

Compulsive habits are most characteristic of the anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This sort of habit is more ritualistic than the habits we’ve discussed so far. For instance, someone with a “nervous” habit might tap her feet while waiting in a long line. However, someone with a compulsive habit might tap her feet exactly 13 times – not because she is tense, but because she is attempting to reduce truly anxious, troubling feelings. Tapping exactly 13 times – not one less or one more -is a compulsion. A compulsion is a specific action whose purpose is to calm the anxiety associated with troubling obsessions (thoughts or sensations). There are many, many types of compulsive habits. Washing one’s hands a certain number of times is a common compulsive habit that often results in red, chapped, even bleeding skin. Counting steps, saying certain words or numbers, checking things repeatedly, praying in a specified way not characteristic for others who practice the same religion – all of these can be compulsive habits. The child who engages in these or other compulsive habits is a slave to the habit – he or she MUST perform the action or else suffers overwhelming anxiety.

Compulsive habits do not tend to go away by themselves. Instead, they get worse and worse over time and spread into more and more styles of compulsive habits. The sooner a child receives professional treatment for compulsive habits, the sooner the child will be able to lead a normal, healthy, compulsion-free life. If you think that your child’s habits may be compulsive in nature, arrange for an assessment with a mental health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist). Treatment can help!

Bad Self-Image

Have you ever visited the “mirror room” in a circus? You know, the one where there are many different kinds of mirrors, each one reflecting an unreal and exaggerated version of the viewer, making the person look so much taller, smaller, fatter or skinnier than he or she really is?

For people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder or BDD, every day is like staring into a circus mirror. Except, people with the condition don’t realize that what they are seeing is a distortion – they believe their distorted reflection is real. They consider themselves physically flawed, although no one else would agree with this assessment. They preoccupy themselves about a perceived flaw in one or more of their features or body parts — their nose is too big, their eyes too small, their skin too light or too dark. They feel ugly — both from the inside and out.

While most people have some issues with their appearance — indeed, the beauty and fashion industry preys on our insecurities — the obsession about perceived physical flaws among those with BDD is excessive. In fact, most of their perceived flaws simply don’t exist, or if they do, they are barely noticeable. However, sufferers are absolutely convinced that they are deformed or ugly and feel shamed just by being in the presence of other people; they are often so anxious that they can’t work or enjoy life. Some are so intent on fixing their imperfections that they risk multiple surgeries and unproven treatments.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder often comes with other mental health conditions like clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulse control disorders like trichotillomania, anxiety disorders and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

What causes Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
BDD is more common than most people realize; it is believed to affect 2 in every 100 members of the population. It is most prevalent among teenagers and young adults, mainly because it is during these times that the pressure to present a “beautiful” front is most intense.

A family history of BDD or obsessive-compulsive disorders increases the likelihood of the condition developing in a person. This implies that BDD has an organic origin, such as chemical imbalance in the part of the brain that controls emotions and habits. Traumatic experiences, like physical and sexual abuse, can also trigger Body Dysmorphic Disorder in those who have the genetic vulnerability for it.

What Are the Symptoms of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
The following are some of the signs parents should look out for:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive pre-occupation with physical appearance
  • A pervasive belief that one is ugly or unattractive despite assurances and evidence to the contrary
  • A feeling of shame or self-loathing related to one’s body
  • Frequent examination of the body parts they consider as flawed
  • Eating disorders
  • Use of many cosmetic products or procedures, exercise regimens, with no pleasure at results
  • Social withdrawal or social anxiety
  • Inability to function because of preoccupation about appearance

What Can Parents Do?
If you see signs that a child or teen may have Body Dysmorphic Disorder, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. The obsessive-compulsive nature of the illness, as well as the pervasiveness of the perceptual disturbance make simple assurances ineffective. Counseling, therapy and medication are known to help. If the illness is accompanied by dysfunctional eating and exercise habits, then the help of a medical doctor, eating disorders specialists or psychiatrist will also be helpful.

Refuses to Go to a Mental Health Professional

In an ideal world, consulting a mental health professional would be as easy as consulting a medical doctor – and as stigma-free. Unfortunately, many people still feel an element of shame, embarrassment or other type of awkwardness about going to a psychological professional. Some people still think that mental health professionals only deal with people who are “crazy” and understandably don’t want to be an identified member of such a population. In fact, in the “olden days” mental illness was poorly understood and derogatory terms such as “crazy” were used to describe people who we know know were suffering from various biological disorders such as schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder or delusional disorders. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists can now help mentally ill people feel and function better than ever before. Moreover, modern mental health professionals assist not only those who are suffering from true mental illness, but also those who are completely mentally healthy. They help almost everyone to function in less stressful, more productive and happier ways, helping  them achieve their full potential in every area. People who access mental health services in order to feel and achieve their best, tend to be more emotionally sophisticated, open-minded and growth-oriented than those who do not. In other words, it is often the most mentally healthy people who consult mental health pofessionals today.

Although YOU may know all this, your child may not. In fact, your child may have the old misconception that going to a mental health professional means that there is something wrong with you. As a result, he or she may not want to see a mental health professional, even though you know that this is exactly what is needed.

If your child refuses to go to a mental health professional, consider the following tips:

Explain to your Child what Mental Health is and what Mental Health Professionals Do
As previously mentioned, there are many misconceptions that float around regarding the mental health profession — and even young children could have heard of them through playmates and peers. It’s important then that you explain carefully that mental health is just one aspect of our health. Emphasize that healthy people access mental health services in order to learn new skills, improve relationships, reduce stress and emotional discomfort, feel better physically, and achieve more in school or life. Be specific too – talk about the various tasks that mental health professionals perform such as psycho-educational assessments, mental health assessments, family counseling (to reduce conflict or help cope with stress), remove and/or manage fear, anger or sadness, and much more.

Your child may not recognize or agree that he or she has an issue that requires intervention. As a parent, you are in charge of your child’s well-being. If your child had an infection, you would insist on medical attention. Similarly, if your child needs help for an emotional problem, it is up to you to arrange it. If the child in question is a teenager, you might have to deal with resistance – be prepared. First try to motivate the youngster with reason – explain the possible benefits of assessment and treatment. If the child still refuses to cooperate, let him or her know that, privileges will be removed. For example, “No you don’t have to go to see Dr. Haber, but if you decide not to come, you will  not have the use of my car until you change your mind.” Think of whatever consequences might help motivate your adolescent to cooperate.

Tell children what to expect at their first session. If there will be art or music or toys, let your child know that the session should be very enjoyable, even while the therapist is learning about the child’s issues and learning how to be help. If it will be a talking therapy, tell the child how the therapist might open the conversation, what sort of questions might be asked and how the child might approach the conversation. Tell the child how to handle tricky situations like not wanting to talk or open up too much or feeling not understood or being fearful. In other words, prepare for everything!

Gently but Clearly Explain Why you are Referring Them to a Mental Health Practitioner
Tell your child why you have scheduled a mental health consultation. Explain that the consultation is meant to help the child and is not some sort of negative consequence! Kids who are caught breaking the law, or even family rules, are often scheduled for counseling in order to find out the reason for the misbehavior. Children who do not do well in school are referred to educational psychologists for assessment of learning disorders or other causes. Depressed or anxious teens may be sent to psychiatrists or psychologists for treatment. If you are having relationship difficulties with your youngster, make sure to participate in the counseling process in some way, either having joint sessions with the child or having individuals sessions just like the child is having, or both.

Negotiate Confidentiality Boundaries Beforehand
A tricky issue for children in therapy is confidentiality. It’s common for some kids to have hesitation talking to a mental health professional. For them, counselors are just their parents’ spies — a way parents can gather information about them. It’s important that parents (and maybe the mental health professional him or herself) clarify beforehand that all issues discussed within sessions are confidential, and that only the generic nature of issues discussed would be revealed to parents. Similarly, the mental health practitioner can specify what will remain confidential and what sorts of information cannot remain confidential, giving the child the opportunity to share or withhold information knowing the limits of confidentiality.

Tell your Kids that They can Terminate a Consultation Anytime
It’s important that kids actually enjoy their therapy experiences. Negative therapy experiences may affect them negatively throughout life as they refuse to get much needed help because of traumatic memories of therapy in childhood! Therefore, make sure that your child LIKES going to therapy or change the therapist, or the type of therapy, or even consider stopping therapy for the time being and trying again later. Usually, mental health professionals are good at establishing rapport with their clients and child and adolescent specialists are particularly skilled at making kids feel comfortable. Nonetheless, if your child remains uncomfortable after a couple of meetings, end the therapy. Adults also need to feel comfortable in therapy in order to benefit and they, too, have the right to “shop around” for a compatible therapist or therapy approach. Since there are so many different types of treatments and so many therapists, there; they will do their best to get your child feeling at ease before they start an actual intervention. But many factors can cause your child to be uncomfortable with a mental health professional. It’s helpful then that your child knows that you are at least willing to consider enlisting a different professional, or terminating sessions if there are significant concerns.