In my new practice, Yum Pediatrics, I am starting to see many children who for years have struggled with their weight. They come to me because their parents think I may have the answer to their struggles. They may have learned that I have a large instructional kitchen in my office and a teaching garden for kids. They may have seen my website about wellness and followed the work of the Doctor Yum Project, where I teach kids to cook local produce. They may think that getting their kids to see me will get them on the right track.
It’s true that I have a lot of success when it comes to kids and healthy food. After children attend my classes so many of their parents tell me they start eating differently. Kids come to my office for their well-child visits, where they are examined in my “carrot room” and leave with a goodie bag full of fruit, inspired to try new healthy food. I’ve helped lots of kids to improve their eating habits and many of them lose weight and feel better.
However, the sobering truth is that there is a growing number of children who are addicted to food and that I CANNOT help on my own. These are kids who have struggled with their weight, try and try to eat better, and fall off the wagon. They worry about food, sneak junk food in their bedrooms, and endure bullying from kids because of their weight (a stress that makes them eat more).
I recently saw the movie “Fed Up,” a sobering documentary about how our government has systematically subsidized the obesity crisis, and how sugar has crept into almost every processed food we now buy. It follows a few obese children who are addicted to food, and they seem all too similar to some of the patients I see at my office. After watching their anguish, their struggles and ultimate failures, I came away from the movie feeling depressed. Seeing how cocaine-addicted lab mice become preferentially addicted to sugar over cocaine made me even more hopeless about my food-addicted patients. All the willpower in the world cannot help these kids pass up a sweet treat offered at a birthday party.
What I now realize is that children who are addicted to food cannot succeed without a family who is committed to eating healthy. And even more important, the families of these kids cannot succeed without a community that is committed to a culture of wellness. The reality is that most kids are faced with addictive, non-nutritive food at every turn, a situation that fuels obesity and food addiction. This unavoidable, unhealthy food environment can be present at home, at school, during extracurricular activities and even at church.
Here are just a few places a “Culture of Wellness” can support children’s health:
- Church congregations can start to address childhood obesity by preparing whole food meals at gatherings and talking about how to instill healthy habits in its youngest members. Joining our Cooking Club is a great example of how church groups can explore better eating.
- Scout troops can sell non-food items for fundraising, serve water and wholesome food at gatherings and campouts. While scouts teach many great life lessons, when it comes to wellness, there is SO much room for improvement.
- Schools can develop healthy classroom models where rewarding kids with food is banned and birthdays are celebrated with activity and special privileges instead of cupcakes. Parent Teacher Associations can fundraise with fun runs instead of bake sales. I would be thrilled if my PTA stopped sending me emails about bringing bags of candy to school and instead asked for bags of fruit and veggies.
- Sports leagues and coaches can enforce a NO snack or “Fruit and Water Only” policy for after games. I’m discouraged when I see kids leaving the playing fields with hundreds of calories worth of junk food.
- Libraries can hand out farmers market tokens for summer reading clubs instead of fast food coupons.
- Lunchrooms would have fruit bowls at the check out and salad bars full of fresh local produce. (This would require that our government care more about the health of children than the pocketbooks of the Food Industry, so I wouldn’t hold my breath on this point).
I have been thinking more and more that the way I can help children to overcome food addiction in a more profound way than giving them recipes or cooking skills is by advocacy. If you are interested in being part of the solution, I’m happy to speak to or provide materials to your schools, your scout troops, your school health advisory boards, and churches about how we can promote a culture of wellness and help our kids find better health. Our kids deserve for us to make changes in the culture. We owe it to them.