The conclusions of the last few posts about the obesity epidemic are sobering and perhaps even bleak. The causes of the problem are systemic and deeply embedded in our culture. A drastic change in lifestyle by returning to the era before processed food, agribusiness, the drive for thinness and chronic dieting is highly unlikely. The expectation of an immediate solution to weight loss via surgery, crash diet or miracle pill is pure fantasy. The solution is a hard road through moderation in food intake with reduced expectations for the future. That doesn't mean quick weight loss followed by stabilization but instead slow, steady, sustainable change.
Most epidemics spread horizontally, through a generation, both old and young, and must be contained from sweeping through an entire population. This one grows vertically. A child needs to be taught by adults, peers and advertising how to engage with the world of plenty, how to become obese. The challenge to care for the currently obese isn't enough to stop this epidemic.
The real hope lies with helping future generations avoid the same fate. The current world of plenty may shift slowly over time but not fast enough to save today's youth. Without tools to avoid this fate, children are mere fodder for the societal forces that lead to obesity. Adults and public policy must know what to say and what to do in order to make a difference. The perils of processed food and mass marketing are dire but invisible to kids. They need to be convinced that there's a different way to live around all this food.
Practically, direct education and public health initiatives aimed at children don't do the trick. Certainly, some obedient children will respond to information as law to live by or to fear-based propaganda as horror stories to avoid. However, the innate propensity for children to test adults and rebel against authority will make food rules just another set of parental edicts to disobey. Getting into the minds of children takes somewhat more creativity. Two points are essential to make a difference with kids: educating parents and adults how to talk to kids about food and weight and getting into children's heads through content they'll listen to.
Both parents and public health administrators need to be aware that the teaching points available to educate children are ineffective. Eat less, move more and learn "healthy eating" facts--the trifecta of food education--neither change food behavior nor lessen the risk of obesity. Cooperative, motivated adults are fonts of nutrition knowledge yet find that knowing what to do has no effect on their own behavior and weight. Children, moved more by the innate urge to pick the poison apple, will take on food rules as a challenge to either squeeze extra sweets from exhausted parents or sneak them at any opportunity. The simple education model is a boon to the food industry. Sophisticated marketing and advertising trounces any earnest public health campaign.
Children are all instinct and emotion. The tack of using logic and reason to change clearly preprogrammed urges is hard enough for adults and unrealistic for kids. But there's one thing business already knows: the malleable minds of children are open to suggestion. And much of what draws children in to focusing on food and weight is the promise of a secure identity.
The basis of a child's personality is largely genetic, but the birth of identity forms around relationships. In other words, we are born with many character traits that define how we react to the world, but only by engaging with the world do we learn how to perceive ourselves. Personality doesn't come with a guidebook. Other people provide the feedback to form identity. Self-awareness is a gradual dawning over years that reveals our mental perception of who we are.
In childhood, the powerful desire for an identity comes with the urgency to feel instantly fully formed. Food and weight, the overarching obsession of this generation, is an easy barometer of identity. That can be the kid who eats anything, the kid who doesn't eat, the kid who is thin or who is fat. But food and weight can provide instant identity.
Accordingly, the practical first step is to teach kids to let food be food. Children can't learn food choice is related to good and bad behavior or be praised for eating in any particular way. They can't believe they are special because of how they eat or how they look. They can't learn to associate guilt with dessert or that eating is always a shameful act. They must learn food is necessary for life and a regular part of every day, that meals can be enjoyed and not scary and that weight is not a barometer of success and failure. They have to hear a new philosophy of food and weight every day and allow their internal search for identity bypass food and weight to look for different ways to see themselves. And they need to hear over and over again that it takes time to figure out who you are. Focusing on a quick fix like food and weight won't speed anything up. In fact, it doesn't work for anyone.
If this is the message adults need to teach kids, the second key point is how to get them to listen. That will be in the next post.