Food for health


Body Image and Eating Habits
In Children suffering from eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, need professional help. Do not overlook the severity of the disorder by dismissing it as a teenage fad.

"What do you eat for breakfast?”

“I don’t eat breakfast. Who wants to eat anything first thing in the morning?”

“Do you have vegetables as part of your diet? Do you eat brinjals, ladies’ fingers, bitter gourd, lots of salads?”

“Brinjal! Is that a vegetable? Eeks! Ladies’ fingers are too slimy. Salads! Only cows eat them. Bitter gourd! One doesn’t need to eat that, life is bitter enough as it is!”

These are common responses we receive from youngsters. Many young people don’t eat bananas. Not that they’re afraid to go bananas, but because they think they will put on weight.

All of us have an image of our body. It is a kind of a map, which we take for granted. We use this unconsciously when we move around — we don’t bump into things even though we are not looking at them. For example, as children, we are small and occupy less space, so we know that we can pass through a small opening without even looking at it. As we grow, we occupy more space and subconsciously become aware that we no longer can pass through that small opening. This sense of body is variously known as body image, kinaesthetic body, sensory body, etc.

Most young people (up to the age of 20) aspire to look like their movie idols. At some point in life we have all tried to look like someone else. Every generation has its own icons, whom youngsters idolise. As we grow, we develop a certain body image. As our body changes, our body image also changes. However, more often than not, our image of what we want to be does not match our body.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable — because of hormonal changes, their bodies are changing along with their body image. They are prone to set unreasonable standards for themselves. Fashions and fads have an enormous influence on them. Their definitions of beauty and acceptability are based on their perception of movie stars or fashion models. They are also acutely conscious of peer pressure to conform to these standards. Girls are very sensitive about being called fat. Boys tend to be very touchy if they are called skinny. Often, the standards set by teenagers are so unreasonable that most of them feel unhappy about their body and their body image. Short kids want to be tall; tall kids don’t want to gain too much height. Fat kids want to lose weight; skinny kids want to gain weight. Often, these youngsters are unaware of their innate charm and attractiveness.

Health Problems

Being healthy becomes a low priority. We come across many young adults who suffer from various problems. Girls come to us complaining of irregular periods. Boys come to us with various nagging physical problems. The root cause of these is the food they eat. Many of them go to bed late, get up late in the morning and then find that they have no time for meals! Many don’t eat breakfast because they are afraid to put on weight. Because they starve themselves in order to lose weight, they become mentally preoccupied with food. The need to conform to social norms of acceptable “cool” behaviour makes them eat junk food. When hunger takes over, they turn to anything that’s available, even if it is junk food such as wada pav, samosa pav, hamburgers, French fries, etc. In their attempt to conform to social snobbery, they forget that while eating such food is acceptable once in a while, it is not good as staple food. Most fast foods contain empty calories — that is, high calories that are of no use to the body. They are high in fat (mostly saturated fats, as the oil gets recycled many times over), high in carbohydrates, have no vitamins and have very little or no proteins.

Unfortunately, our bodies adapt to these weird food habits and tend to like them too! Hence, when faced with regular food, there is an “I don’t want to eat this boring food” attitude! As a result, there is malnutrition coupled with its side effects.

Anorexia and bulimia are two diagnosable eating disorders. Some young people are so caught up with keeping their body image at an ideal level that they even start counting calories where there are none. We know of a girl who used to say that there are 80 calories in water, and so even rationed the amount of water she drank! These extremes are not the norm. The other extreme is when children binge on food and then vomit it all out. This is called bulimia. Generally, anorexia and bulimia are seen together. The person starves himself or herself, and when they can’t help it any more, they go on an eating binge, and then get rid of it by vomiting it all out. Children suffering from eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, need professional help. Do not overlook the severity of the disorder by dismissing it as a teenage fad.

Harmful Side Effects

The side effects of unsupervised over-dieting in young adults are a matter of concern. These include:

  • If a growing body is starved of calories, it leads to frequent attacks of giddiness and hypogly-caemia (a sinking feeling due to low blood sugar level).
  • These children become more prone to infection. We have seen a rise in cases of tuberculosis in young adults even in well-to-do families.
  • Fewer calories create a hormonal imbalance and cases of irregular periods are common among teenage girls. They appear tense and frequently complain of headaches. Among boys, inadequate caloric intake may result in delayed growth pattern. They, too, look anxious and complain frequently of headache and lack of energy.
  • The body becomes more prone to hypocalcaemia (low level of calcium in the blood) with susceptibility to fractures. Yukta Mukhi, the former Miss World, after suffering two fractures, confessed in an interview that they may have been due to her extreme dieting to look thin.

The other major problem faced by young adults is one of obsession to develop muscles and excessive exercising (gymming as it is known in slang) to develop them. Excessive exercising harms the body by wearing out muscle tissues and tendons, which leads to early arthritis. Recently, we are seeing more people in their 20s having this problem which was generally seen as degenerative illness amongst the old or the aged.

Due to enormous preoccupation to develop muscles, young adults become vulnerable to drug peddlers who palm off anabolic steroids to them develop them. Steroids cause severe mood swings and uncharacteristic violence. These people too are generally seen as "pigging out on food". Generally it means that they are forever hungry and are preoccupied with food. This, too, is one of the effects of Anabolic steroid. At this stage they will need professional help to over come these problems.

Young adults do not realise that their constitution depends on their genes. However much one may try to become tall, if both parents are short or even if one of them is short, they have probably inherited those genes. Similarly, some remain thin even though they eat sumptuously at every meal. Here, too, genes play a role. It has also been seen that the basal metabolic rate (BMR) plays a major role in keeping a person slim or fat. If a person has a low BMR, most of what that person eats gets deposited, because the rate of utilisation is slow. It has been observed in some cases of obesity that even with drastic dieting, the person’s weight remains at high levels. Such people should be encouraged to exercise to increase their BMR.

What is the remedy for these problems? Most young adults need to be assured that their self-worth does not depend on their appearance alone. We need to help children develop their self-worth by praising things that they do well. As Ken Blanchard said, “Catch them doing something correct!” This is important. All of us learn from what we have done correctly rather than from our mistakes. Mistakes only teach what went wrong and not what is right! If we are worried that by praising children, we are spoiling them, then we need to be clear when we criticise them. The criticism needs to be of the action and not of the person. For example, “I don’t like what you just did”, instead of “You are a fool! Why did you do this?” When we praise, we should praise the person as well as the action. When children feel secure, they tend to eat a balanced diet and are less prone to unhealthy eating habits.

Dr. M.G. Bhatia and Ms. Saraswathi