Kid Stuff

Friday June 18th 2010, 4:17 pm
Filed under: Main

Well apparently I fooled someone into believing I know something about weight loss, because I recently received a request to review a new book on childhood obesity. Since I don’t make any money off of blogging, I don’t think I have to mention this, but obviously the publicist GAVE me a copy of the book, called “Overweight: What Kids Say”. I actually had them send it to my work address because it’s a topic we care a lot about there (I work at a non-profit health center).

My first thought upon receiving the book and materials was to dismiss it, because of the packaging. I can’t help it, I’m in marketing. Really unprofessional-looking, self-published books with hideous fonts (comic sans serif !?!) just BUG me. I mean, it may not look like it, but I actually paid someone to design my blog so it would look reasonably professional. Impressions matter, after all.

But, darnit,the old saying is true. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Or its inappropriate font usage.

The bottom line is this, the author reviewed comments from thousands of teenagers over the course of a decade who visited a website where they could talk about obesity. I’m thinking that working with teens must have influenced the kind of typeface, graphics, and writing they used.

Not that that’s a bad thing. As Seinfeld would say.

The beauty of it was that they moderated subject content so as to eliminate (what I would call) the “mean girl syndrome.” If kids posted scary, dangerous or hurtful words the comments were deleted. This created a venue where kids could come anonymously with all their fears and challenges and talk about them openly. They also ensured that only kids who were truly overweight could participate by asking them to self report their height, current weight and goal weight. So it’s a place where kids can have at least some assurance that they are not being judged or made outcasts.

There’s nothing terrifically suprising to me in the findings, but I think they’re valuable anyway. As anyone who’s ever attended a Weight Watchers meeting will know, weight gain happens due to an energy imbalance, but it’s not enough just to tell people to eat less and move more. Kids already have access to a lot of health information. What causes them to overeat isn’t about lack of self control, it’s about lack of self-esteem.

To me, personally, the most amazing thing that the author hypothesizes is that food behaviors in overweight kids can reasonably be assumed to have an addiction basis. Not just that the foods themselves have addictive qualities, but the consumption of food becomes an uncontrollable BEHAVIOR. Weight Watchers totally needs to address this!

Anyway, here’s a quote:

Most kids hate being fat, yet they struggle to resist cravings for highly processed foods e.g. junk food and fast food, knowing full well that eating those foods will result in additional weight gain and further damage to their lives. Many kids post that their eating is out of control. This is compellingly suggestive that an addictive quality or substance dependence on highly pleasurable foods is a significant cause of the childhood obesity epidemic.

And further:

It’s likely simple pleasure, to begin with, which causes kids to overeat. They eat “because the food is there.” But once their brains realize that pain is eased by the pleasure of the food and the stress is relieved by the deplacement activity of eating, even if only for 30 seconds, kids may be driven to continue the behavior, even though they become distressingly overweight or obese because of it. They may become unknowingly ‘hooked’ on using food to comfort themselves and cope with stress. For the majority, this comfort eating appears to be unconscious.

Of course what this does is beg the question — how could we address such unconscious addiction? And the answer isn’t pretty.

What these kids say suggests that in order to break their dependence on highly pleasureable foods, they must go through a ‘withdrawal’ period of intense cravings, antsiness, irritability, even depression – similar to coming off tobacco, alcohol or drugs. Withdrawal is what happens when a substance or behavior, which eases pain, is suddenly removed. It’s the brain’s way of reacting to the jolt. The emotional discomfort of withdrawal may be worse than the emotional discomfort which started the addictive behavior in the first place. this is perhaps why many kids quickly give up on weight loss and go back to overeating again.

This description of withdrawal totally reminds me of how I felt when I joined Weight Watchers in 2002, and quit eating sweets. It also potentially explains why I’m struggling now with getting back on track. If the cure is as unpleasant as all that, is it any wonder we don’t just stop overeating right away?

What do you think?

I think addiction is a useful model for overeating in some ways, but not in others. The biggest difference, obviously, is that unlike drugs, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, or even sex, we CANNOT simply go “cold turkey” with food. (Well, some folks try to, but that’s called anorexia, and it’s not recommended.) That means that different approaches to breaking the addictive cycle are needed, because we have to learn to REDIRECT our eating away from addictive junk foods (as well as making other changes such as portion control), rather than STOPPING eating altogether.

As all weight watchers (including WeightWatchers members) know, and as you yourself are experiencing, in some ways that makes the struggle HARDER. That’s an important thing to remember, because it’s so tempting to blame ourselves, and/or give up, when it’s hard, when what we need to do is reassure ourselves that it’s NOT our fault that it’s hard, and it WILL get easier the more we practice doing it.

And it’s even harder for teens. Any approach to modifying their behavior has to take into account their particular developmental stage; research shows that teen brains simply are not the same as adult brains (this comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried to parent one). I don’t have answers – hell, I don’t even have them for myself – but I will say this: just be thankful you’re running WW meetings for adults, not adolescents! Sure, breaking ourselves of the addiction to junk food is hard, but imagine trying to cope, at the same time, with all the other issues involved in being a teen!

Comment by Sarah in SF 06.18.10 @ 5:37 pm

Whenever I happen to read that people “need” to eat a certain kind of food in order to relieve stressful feelings, I cannot help thinking “It’s the chemistry, stupid”.
As a any successful maintainer knows, sugar and starchy food trigger an infernal circle of overeating.
I’m definitely convinced that food IS addictive and marketing techniques take advantage of this. I also think that total withdrawal works better than allowing small amounts of addictive sweets in our meals.
Try asking a former alcholist…..
Thank you for your interesting post.

Comment by Lorena 06.19.10 @ 9:37 am

I’ve been reading the book “The end of Overeating” by Dr kessler. Most of the book discusses his findings in studying research & interviewing researchers, people in the food industry, attending food industry conferences, etc.

After reading all the compelling evidence around the addictive nature of certain foods, the creative ways used to keep us buying more, and the challenges in changing your conditioning, it’s awonder anyone is a normal weight!!!

Comment by neca 06.21.10 @ 10:43 am

I think it’s hard for a child to distinguish healthy from unhealthy in many areas. Immediate gratification, entitlement issues and an overall lack of discipline has been a slippery slope for this generation. As a teacher, I had to write very specific rules about snacks for my class. 1. Nothing but water, no flavored drinks of any kind. 2. ONE serving only. 3. NO McDonald’s. 4. NO candy. I could go on with the whole list of ridiculously obvious rules about a simple snack. Seriously, the children in my class were bringing a meal to have between meals. The parents were offended that I thought water (WATER!) was the only drink needed for snacks. These are kids that ate breakfast at 8:00 and lunch at 12:00. These are kids that bring pocket change to supplement a lunch that is full of starch and fat with more starch and fat. Did you know school lunch rooms over over 20 “ala-carte” items? They have three kinds of ice cream and Poptarts (?!)… as a side item for lunch? Our last “health census” revealed that over 60% of our student population k-12 was overweight or obese. Wow.

Comment by trina 06.21.10 @ 10:13 pm