Many parents and child care providers may not realize that negative comments and attitudes about food and eating can affect children. Negative comments reinforce what children see daily in the media. There are many messages that provide incorrect information, such as being thin is the only way to be healthy, being thin is easily achieved, and being thin equals happiness, success, and popularity. This incorrect information can lead to unrealistic expectations about body size.
Diet, weight concerns, and body dissatisfaction have all been reported in children as young as 7-9 years, and approximately 40% of elementary school aged girls report that they have tried dieting to lose weight. These children have a fear of fat and worry about the shape of their bodies and how much they weigh. Up to 75% of girls ages 9-12 have dieted two to five times in a single year. Boys also have issues with food and their bodies, usually related to weight, height and strength.
As children approach puberty, they are often unhappy with their body shape and size, not understanding that it is normal for some children to put on extra weight at this time. Children should not be put on restrictive diets. Being more physically active is one of the best ways for children to maintain their weight as they grow into their body height.
Unfortunately, some girls compare themselves to their friends or to the celebrities seen in the media. Boys envy the muscular bodies of sports stars. These unrealistic comparisons can contribute to disordered eating. At the beginning stages of an eating disorder, children may restrict their food intake, then diet constantly. They may skip meals and often refuse foods from an entire food group. Some children exercise excessively for several hours per day. If an eating disorder is left untreated, it can jeopardize bone strength, interrupt normal growth, delay the onset of puberty, and cause other health problems.
On the other hand, when children are able to achieve and maintain a balanced sense of who they are based on their personal attributes, overall self-confidence will be enhanced and strengthened. Then, if children feel pressured to focus on superficial appearance, their strong sense of identity will help them maintain perspective. A healthy, accepting body image allows children to eat appropriate amounts of food, rather than restricting portions because they are self conscious about body size. Motivation to eat and be active for health and satisfaction, rather than to manipulate weight, can enhance the quality of life.
To help children develop a healthy body, child care providers can encourage active play and activities that move the body, such as running, jumping, and backyard sports. Limit the amount of time spent watching TV, sitting at the computer, or playing video games. Providers can also help children by offering healthy foods from the Food Guide Pyramid. Offer fewer foods high in fat and sugar, and provide more opportunities for children to choose fruits and vegetables. By setting a good example in your child care setting, you can also help educate parents so they can promote healthy eating and activity at home as well.
– Kathleen Beardsley