Hell to Pay

There will be hell to pay.

Government-approved diet plans for young girls

In adolescents who develop eating disorders, those who were labeled as "severe dieters" had an 18 times greater chance of developing an eating disorder; with moderate dieting, 5 times greater; non-dieters a 1:500 chance of developing an eating disorder.
Information courtesy ANAD

On the blog Junkfood Science, Sandy Szwarc recently wrote about a "healthy eating" program for 'tween girls deemed "overweight" or "obese". Called BodyWorks, the 'tween girls receive a book called BodyWorks 4 Teens: Eat right, move more, feel great. On the frontspiece, they quoted girls as to what a "healthy teen" was. One girl said, "Someone who is physically and mentally fit. For me, it means, rowing and playing soccer, eating fruits and vegetables, and having good friends to talk to."

Young, growing girls cannot live on fruits and vegetables alone. Maybe that's not what she meant. But there's a whole lot more to life than just fruits and vegetables.

Not on this plan, however. In order to be a "healthy teen," here is what these girls are told to eat each day: "2 cups fruits, 2 ½ cups vegetables, 3 cups fat-free or low-fat dairy, 3 ounces whole grains, 5 ½ ounces protein. Limit fats, sugars and salt."

It's a diet in any other words.

Writes Szwarc:

When eating out, the girls are advised to limit fried foods and order the garden salads with low-fat dressings, always pick the low-fat choices, get the smallest serving or sandwich on the menu, avoid mayonnaise and use mustard or ketchup because they have less fat, order water or fat-free/low-fat milk to drink, and “try pizza without cheese.”

Or it's information that could appear on a pro-anorexia website. Who's to tell the difference?

Dieting and loss of weight may influence the development of anorexia by turning on a gene that may influence an eating disorder. --ANAD

Girls are supposed to gain approximately 40 pounds during puberty. --ANRED

This plan (a wolf in a sheep's skin- but isn't wolf lower in fat? Oh well. If you want to lose weight, skip the meat, right?) is targeted at girls who are supposed to be gaining weight. All children are, but especially during puberty. If you don't get the proper nutrition during this age, you risk stunted growth along with the eating disorder. No one (not once!) told me that this weight gain was normal. I wound up feeling it wasn't, and felt remarkably uncomfortable in my skin. Especially since I hit my adult height and weight by about 12 or 13.

I pity the girls today.

"We have this thing that it's not really serious," said Dr. Leora Pinhas, a psychiatric director for the eating disorders program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. "But one in 10 will die. We need to act like it's a serious illness." --"Youth eating disorders as bad as cancer, conference told," The Star-Phoenix

Genetics load the gun. Environment pulls the trigger.

Yes, I do pay attention to the anorexic model issue, but it doesn't worry me nearly as much as the phobia surrounding fat and obesity. It's hitting more and more people, at younger and younger ages. And even the parents and carers and other adults in these girls (and boys) lives have been fed the Kool Aid, making it even harder to find a good role model.

I was lucky. I don't think anyone in my house ever dieted. My mom said she was on a diet (Atkins) once, for a week, when it first came out. But then she decided that she "really didn't like meat that much" and left it there. My dad doesn't think dinner is complete without a cookie (and really, who can fault the man?). Yet still, I developed anorexia.

Do I blame the culture? No. But there's a difference between blame and holding things accountable. And looking at them with a critical eye and wondering how we can stop this cycle.

Pinhas dismissed the attention being given to childhood obesity rates - which she says have not increased since 2003 and have not increased in any clinically significant way since the late 1990s.

The most disturbing thing about the constant news about obesity rates is it's likely fuelling eating disorders, Pinhas said.

"Dieting is the gateway to eating disorders. If you have people encouraged to diet because being fat is so bad, you're only giving them an intervention that will make them fat, or give them an eating disorder or make them feel bad about themselves."
--The Star-Phoenix

There will be hell to pay. And our children are going to have to pay the price.

We can do better. We must.


LouiseL said...

I hate this so much. Making kids diet is one of the most misguided ideas in pretty much ever.

I suppose I could paint myself a "victim" of childhood dieting. I weighed a whopping 70lbs in fourth grade. I got my period in sixth grade, which meant Puberty had been kicking those hormones in since fifth grade. By seventh grade I was about 130lbs and this was a dreadful, dreadful thing according to those around me. Never mind that most girls in my age group didn't start menstruating until 2-3 years after me. Never mind that I had reached my full adult height by then (5'2"). I had a DOCTOR tell my mother it wouldn't hurt me to miss a few meals, after I'd been throwing up for no obvious reason. Way to encourage purging, doc.

And so I managed to hardcore-diet my way to 270lbs with the encouragement of family, friends, and doctors. Hell yes, I'm angry. Not because I'm fat; that's by-the-by now. But because this cycle continues, fuelled by irrational hatred of fat, destroying young peoples' self-esteem and mental health, and likely damaging their physical health too.

There's a special place in hell for those people that think it's OK if fat kids suffer humiliation to supposedly motivate them to lose weight and/or that any deaths from EDs are acceptable collateral damage.

I'm really so angry I can't even think about it properly, otherwise I'd go completely bonkers.

Anonymous said...

This so disturbing. Aside from the MANY other issues, these organizations and our government ignore science. There is so much research to show that fat is not inherently harmful, and that kids (including "tweens" and teens) NEED fat. I don't even read women's magazines and I still feel totally bombarded with this stuff and it's created in my my own private backlash- one two many Blue Cross commercials about "healthy" living and I am driven to go to McDonald's and get a burger and fries. But then I've always been a contrary biotch. I feel badly for the girls too.

Tiptoe said...

It's really scary what we are "feeding" our children. It truly can set up a lifetime of failures, misconceptions, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

Charlee said...

The lovely, oh-so-balanced cabbage soup diet was the environmental trigger for me. Had I not been PUT ON THAT DIET at 13 I can't say I wouldn't have become anorexic, but a family history + the diet (and the connotations having someone you love and trust - Mom - putting you on it) made for a wicked combination.

This is so sad and why I can't even fathom having children.

Mindy said...

[quote]On the frontspiece, they quoted girls as to what a "healthy teen" was. One girl said, "Someone who is physically and mentally fit. For me, it means, rowing and playing soccer, eating fruits and vegetables, and having good friends to talk to."[/quote]

What people don't realize is that often young girls do these things and still are not skinny. I did all these things -- I grew up on a farm, for crying out loud! -- and I was still quite overweight. I could also run as fast as everyone else and was more athletic than most of the other girls. But that doesn't matter -- all girls must be within a specific weight range for their height no matter how active they are or how well they eat.


Anonymous said...

I hate to be the contrary one here, making deals with the devil and government ... Especially since I have been dealing with anorexia for a couple of decades and have a sister who also had an eating disorder, but ...

This is not "My Beautiful Mommy" or the cabbage-soup plan, or a pro-anorexia blog-like tip-list. While we *do* live in a culture of thin, this brochure didn't espouse skinny. I thought it was appropriate and positive.

I was surprised when I checked it out ... expecting something ill-informed or incomplete or superficial. I thought it was fantastic ... a colorful, comprehensive, girl-level (and girls helped write, design and contribute to it), wholistic approach to nutrition, stress, family meals, physical activity, eating disorders, media influence, health and beauty myths, and it called upon the USDA, psychiatrists and other reputable sources for information.

It assured girls that weight gain and body changes in puberty were normal, and it urged girls *not* to skip meals, eliminate whole categories of foods, vomit, diet, etc., to enjoy treats in moderation.

I think, once a family or individual has experienced an eating disorder, there might be sensitivity toward anything that smacks of paying attention to food, portion, choices, "controlling" intake or trying to influence body in any way.

There's nothing wrong with a food pyramid that guides fresh choices, fiber, fruits and vegetables, lean meats and complex protein and carbs ... nor is it wrong to ascribe to "limited fats," sodium and processed sugar.

Most kids don't have a problem getting their fat exchanges in, and many have a mouthful of cavities before they have even lost their baby teeth ... my kids were at the dentist recently, and she was fretting about the health of patients she sees.

This brochure doesn't lend itself to educating an extreme-dieter on how to become a better one. Anyone in America, kid or adult, can figure out how to diet ... and I really don't think this is a slippery slope.

This is for the kids who don't have parents or other adult role models to help them make sometimes-better decisions about their health. Or it can help underscore already-healthy choices.

There are *lots* of kids in my kids' schools who don't touch anything but the school chicken nuggets ... not even the canned corn. Because I am in the building and know the families, I also know that their families don't eat together ... as the girls' guide suggests ... that they very often just drive-through on the way to somewhere else; that they complain about having to *go outside* for *recess* or go to gym; and they really complain about having the soda machines turned off until after school ... because they hate milk and will just throw it away. So much food at school (whether the kids brought it from home or got the school lunch) goes uneaten and thrown away.

Statistics may not reflect a rise in obesity since 2003, but there are an awful lot of really big, heavy kids even in elementary schools. They often mirror their parents, who don't turn in school physicals b/c they don't take them to the pediatrician. There are diagnosed Type II diabetics whose blood sugars are totally out of control, b/c their parents don't enforce good, full nutrition. They seem to think their child is just a little heavy, or eats a few sweets, but sweets never hurt anyone. That probably used to be true, but the widespread availability of cheap, processed convenience foods is much different than when parents cooked at home or there weren't so many packaged foods and fast-food options.

Nobody says the government should put kids on an extreme diet or any weight-loss plan, but I think it is responsible community health to provide nutrition information, self-evaluation exercises, recipes, tips for healthy living and models for a lifestyle that will support physical and emotional growth through childhood and the adult years.

Carrie Arnold said...


There is some truth to what you're saying. I believe kids should eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables (and chicken nuggets!) and play and have fun.

I don't know if school lunches have changed in the 20 years since I've eaten them, but the fried foods were the only thing that tasted good. The choice between turkey slices in gloppy gravy and lumpy mashed potatoes with a side of canned peas or...pizza! Um, not much of a choice.

The problem is this: you can be in the "overweight" or "obese" category and be active and eating well. It's the assumption that being overweight means you're unhealthy. Obese kids actually get fewer cavities. And they don't necessarily eat any differently, either.

So let's take the focus off weight and put it on health. Exercise shouldn't be about weight control, it should be about enjoyment. Sweets are a normal, acceptable part of a healthy diet. I have a HUGE sweet tooth and I satisfy it regularly. And fats are important, too.

Kids- especially those prone to eating disorders- take this information to heart and take it to the extreme. And I've also see weight reduction strategies lead to weight *gain* far more than they lead to weight *loss*.

Rachel said...

It's a difficult balancing act for schools and parents, I think. On one hand, I think there is a gross lack of nutrition information today, despite the fact that we're bombarded over the head with it every day in the media. The parents I know all feed their kids fast food and processed foods and hardly any fruits, veggies and whole grains. I graduated in 1997, and I didn't know what a calorie was until my early 20s. I now cover about 20 communities for a newspaper, in which there are three times as many schools. The most expensive private schools offer healthy lunches, but the mid-income and poorer area public schools do not. They're also the ones with soda and junk foods machines in them. Health class is offered just half a year, period, with only a fraction of that time devoted to nutrition education.

But I also agree with Carrie in that I feel too much emphasis is placed on weight as a marker of good health. Fat kids aren't the only ones who could benefit from health and nutrition education, and to assume thin kids are thin because they eat healthy is a dangerous assumption to make. Plus, I do think that our current emphasis on weight does promote eating disordered behaviors. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer at the University of Michigan has documented a noticeable rise in disordered behaviors amongst teen girls and boys. Such behaviors are not only dangerous, they're also counterintuitive. Kids who diet are more likely to stay or become overweight or obese than kids who aren't.

I think we have to ask ourselves here: Are we helping or hurting kids with these kinds of health campaigns?

Anonymous said...

I didn't really see that the campaign talked about weight loss, per se, to the girls it is targeting for education -- more healthy eating, moderate exercise, healthy/positive thinking, smarter lifestyle choices. It may be intended for girls who are heavier-by-the-numbers or at risk for becoming so, but the literature itself doesn't talk about weighing yourself or measuring yourself by tapes, clothing, scales ... or food, for that matter. It talks about portions, and what a portion size is ... just like people with eating disorders learn in hospitals and programs. Even family-based treatment seems to require notetaking of nutrition content/amounts, even if it isn't in the presence of the child ... at least in the beginning.

The school lunches now (they underwent an overhaul in our district) ... they are pretty healthy (even the chicken nuggets ... they bake them, and they are all white meat, not pressed); fresh fruit as an option every meal (they serve breakfast and lunch) and usually a canned fruit/applesauce/fruit juice; salad bar available at all levels (elementary, middle, high); side salads; canned veggies; baked potatoes, baked sweet-potato wedges or "air fries" (convection oven); vegetarian choices at every meal (lots of muslim families here and many who have bean-and-rice-based diets); crackers; string cheese; pizza with whole-grain dough; and there are still some "old-school" choices that haven't been re-tooled, etc., etc.

But the kids say it's all "nasty," and they want the "real stuff" ... as in the real fast-food brands that the schools used to serve (Dominoes pizza, for example, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts at breakfast ... Pepsi machine and vending open all day).

I just don't think this campaign targets those who are maybe at the top of their range (or over) but eating healthy. I *know* that ED-prone kids take things to heart, but that's what their parents are for ... to help them navigate areas of anxiety or compulsiveness, and to get them outside help, if they need it. There are plenty of kids who *don't* "diet" but also don't have healthy eating patterns, and they are at risk of developing an eating disorder of some sort, as well.

I know this blog is about eating disorders and the disorder in our lives and culture that sometimes potentiate them, but not everything should be a trigger ... it's political-correctness overkill. We can't encourage kids to be healthy, b/c we might cause eating disorders? As long as we as families and a culture don't propose perfection ... or guilt for not aiming for it ... then why not try to help our kids grow into the strongest, most vigorous people they can be (and if individual families/parents object, then those families get to choose not to have their child participate/keep the brochure/complete the exercises ... and can confiscate it, explaining their values).

Just an aside regarding obesity/fewer cavities ... It sounds funny to read that. I don't think any weight kid, obese or otherwise, gets fewer cavities: kids who, most of all, don't have good oral care but also drink/eat lots (not moderate amounts) of sugar or soda (and may be, but aren't necessarily, less healthy than other children) can damage the tooth enamel from the acids, exacerbating any effects unbrushed/accumulated plaque may cause in decay (which, of course, would be *much* worse if said child engaged in purging). Avoiding sugar and soda also helps bones, especially if the kiddo drinks milk instead.

I'm not here to blog-bash ... just engaging in (I hope) healthy debate. You write about important topics, and I appreciate your attention to the cause of eating disorders.

Dreaming again said...

40 lbs during puberty? who came up with that number? I entered the 8th grade at 4'7'' tall (totally flat chested, no puberty in site)... weighing somewhere in the mid 60's range. I completed the 9th grade at 5'2'' and a DD chest ... on no chart will you find that 100 lbs is healthy for 5'2 ... period ...add the busty chest (which did not help with the body image) you've got an added weight issue.

To assign how much someone is supposed to gain during puberty is ABSURD.
I knew one girl that was 5'1 in the 5th grade and is 5'1 now.

who knows how much a child will grow during that period ...

ARGH!!! I think I'll end my rant now, I'm not making sense as it is.

Carrie Arnold said...


The real understanding I wish people had about calories is that they are units of energy. Nothing more, nothing less. They're not values of morality or anything like that.


You do have valid points. I DO think there should be fresh fruits and veggies readily available. And perhaps this is a side gripe, but perhaps not. I hate the idea of "kid food." Of course, expecting a two year old to dig into steak tartar is not optimal. But only feeding them hot dogs because that's all you think she'll like is ludicrous. And then that's all they grow up eating because they don't expect to like anything else.

And I think part of the reason behind the obesity/cavities study was to look at cavities as a proxy for sugar consumption. Not that fat provides cavity protection.

I enjoy dialogue like this, so keep it coming.


The 40 pounds is an estimate. I'm guessing if you're taller, you'll probably gain more. But the general thought is 1/4 to 1/3 of your adult body weight is gained during puberty. Looking at my current weight, that was probably about right. But I gained and THEN grew, which was a serious issue with me for a while.

And the major point is that so many girls don't realize that this weight gain is an essential part of puberty.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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Have any questions or comments about this blog? Feel free to email me at carrie@edbites.com

nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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