eating · eating disorders · family

Eat me, drink me: Philosophical reflections on our attitudes about children and food*

*That’s the title of a talk I have a few years ago at the Vermont Food Ethics Workshop.

Recently I started thinking again about children and diets, in light of the whole “summer Weight Watchers for free” thing. I blogged first about what’s awful about that idea and then about what we might do if not Weight Watchers.

But I’m also interested, as a philosopher who writes about children, in our cultural ideas about children and food. I’m interested in our romantic ideas of children as “natural eaters,” on the one hand, and as out of control eaters, wantons, on the other. Think Cookie Monster! We project a lot of our ideas about childhood onto child aged eaters.

(Jenn Epp and I wrote a paper on similar themes about children and sexuality. Again children are cast as either out of control, sexually depraved creatures who need to be watched and patrolled or they’re perfectly innocent and naive and in need of our protection. )

In the context of food and dieting, our fear of childhood obesity makes us want to control childhood eating because of this idea children have no willpower and at the same time there’s this popular parenting idea that if we left children alone to graze, they’d make nutritious choices and never eat too much. Both ideas, I argued, in the talk I gave at Vermont are mistaken.

As usual the truth is somewhere in between. As is often the case popular views about children aren’t really about children. They’re about adult preoccupations and fears that we project onto children. We either idealize them or make them int our worst fears. Nowhere are contemporary parenting debates more fraught than in arguments about what and when to feed children. My kids mostly missed the great juice box wars but I don’t envy today’s parents.

Children aren’t that different from adults. It’s not that we corrupt them and that they start out as natural intuitive eaters. Children prefer sugar, fat, salt when given healthy and unhealthy choices to choose from, and will not choose healthy foods automatically. Given healthy food choices they are pretty good at moderating amounts.

Many people swear by Ellyn Satler’s moderate advice to parents which involves a division of responsibility between parents and children. Parents are responsible for choosing what foods to offer and children choose how much and whether to eat.

On her view, the parents are responsible for providing regular (healthy) meals and snacks, cooking and preparing the food for young children, serving it to children, and making the family eating experience pleasant. Children are responsible for deciding WHAT they want to eat on their plates, HOW MUCH they eat, and WHETHER THEY EAT at all.

My worst time as a parent worrying about food was when I had one child who was significantly underweight and another who was significantly overweight. I actually had a family doctor suggest that I prepare the kids different meals. You know, skim milk for one kid and whole milk for the other. He even suggested that I send the overweight child to bed early and offer the underweight child cookies and ice cream while watching videos. I looked at him asked, do you even have children?

Instead, I continued (mostly) preparing family meals and letting the kids choose what they ate. In their teens one pursued ballet and modern dance, the other rugby and football. You can guess which one did which. Today, in their early twenties they are both of normal weight though at the opposite end of the range.  But even if one did end up “too thin” and one “too fat,” I hope I’d have the peace of mind and commonsense to recognize that bodies come in lots of different shapes and sizes. They’re my children after all.

I want to tell my friends with young children to relax. Children aren’t perfectly pure creatures that you need to worry about spoiling but neither are they monsters who you have to control.

Are you a parent of young children? What’s your approach to feeding children? Do you worry about their food choices? 


diets · eating · eating disorders · food · health

If not Weight Watchers for children, then what?

Regular readers know that I’m no fan (to put it mildly) of Weight Watchers. See I hate you Weight Watchers.

I think it’s extra awful that they are offering free summer memberships to children and I’ve written about that too.

(Added: Yes, it’s not just Weight Watchers. Goodlife Fitness does it too for high school students. FWIW, I also hate them.)

Yet, I can see the attraction. We know adults find it impossible to lose weight. That diets don’t work is a regular theme here on the blog.

Still, many people who agree that there is not much we can do about adult obesity other than helping people not gain weight in the first place, view children as the front line in the “war against obesity.” The thought is that if we can stop obesity either before it develops or in its early stages, we can avoid the health problems associated with overweight and obesity.

(Added: For those who don’t know the blog that well, I’m using talk of “obesity” and the “war on obesity” even though I think these are very problematic. See Catherine’s post with which I agree, “Obese” is a bad word—it’s got to go. I’m doing it because I think that even if that’s your framework you shouldn’t endorse dieting for children.)

What’s the problem then? Couldn’t children who are looking for help, who struggle with their weight, find some sensible advice at Weight Watchers? It’s got to be better than the semi-starvation plan that got me through high school. I lived for years on coffee, cigarettes (and, this was the 70s and 80s, we didn’t know better) bran muffins. We know lots of older children and young teens try wacky diets. At least Weight Watchers is all about regular food and includes all the food groups.

The big problem is that while common sense seems obvious, it’s actually not clear what works. “Eat less, move more,” sure, and what could be wrong with that? (James Fell says it’s bullshit and he makes me laugh.) But we don’t have a very good grip on the causes of obesity. Nor do we have a very good handle on what works to reduce childhood obesity. It’s definitely not as simple as “eat less, move more.”

If a medication had the same success rate as dieting—where ‘diet’ is behavior aimed at producing a calorie deficit by eating less and moving more—and a similar track record of bad side effects (including significant weight gain), there is no way we’d prescribe it to anyone, let alone children.

What do we know? We know what doesn’t work. Shame and stigmatization don’t work. See campaign takes creative aim at Georgia’s anti-obesity ads.

You might think who would recommend shaming, anyway? But bioethicist Daniel Callahan outright advocates shaming in his opinion piece, “Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic,” Hastings Center Report 43, no. 1 (2013): 34-40.

fat activist marilyn wann

What about labelling without shame, simply describing overweight and obesity without judgement?

However, even telling children they are overweight has bad effects

“A recent study by researchers at UCLA found that if girls had been called “too fat” by someone by age 10, they were more likely to be “obese” at age 19, and that the more people who told her she was “too fat” the more her chances of being “obese” increased. The study included controlled for income, race, childhood weight and puberty age.” See here.

Girls who are told by a parent, sibling, friend, classmate or teacher that they are too fat at age 10 are more likely to be obese at age 19, a new study by UCLA psychologists shows. The study looked at 1,213 African-American girls and 1,166 white girls living in Northern California, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., 58 percent of whom had been told they were too fat at age 10. All the girls had their height and weight measured at the beginning of the study and again after nine years.

Overall, the girls labeled fat were 1.66 times more likely than the other girls to be obese at 19, the researchers found. They also found that as the number people who told a girl she was fat increased, so did the likelihood that she would be obese nine years later. (These findings appear in the June 2014 print issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics and are published online April 28.)

“Simply being labeled as too fat has a measurable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and the study’s senior author. “Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained.”

See also “Adolescent Dieting May Predict Obesity and Eating Disorders” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2006.

Doctors suggest weighing children without judgement. It’s just a number. That’s all.

A set of swings with no one in them. Photo by Aaron Burden, Unsplash.

One other suggestion is to decouple inactivity and obesity and focus is on the inactivity side of the equation. There are obesity related reasons to care about inactivity but that’s not the only reason. There are also good reasons to decouple them. Efforts at improving activity (and nutrition) shouldn’t be measured solely in terms of impact on obesity.

There are no studies showing harmful effects of increasing children’s activity levels. Thin people need to move more too and overweight and obese people shouldn’t quit exercising if the scale doesn’t move

I think a similar focus on nutrition and developing a healthy relationship with food would be good regardless of its impact on weight and BMI.

But until we have a good handle on the causes of childhood obesity I think that guilting parents and shaming children has to end.

We know diets don’t work. We know body shaming doesn’t work. It turns out that even naming the problem makes it worse. Children who are told they are fat by friends, family, doctors are more likely to gain weight.

So what to do?

First, don’t take them to Weight Watchers.

Second, help them learn to appreciate the bodies they have and the things that these bodies can do. Make movement fun and joyful.

Third, help children learn to cook at home and make family meals happy occasions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics new guidelines (see here) on dealing with weight and kids suggests getting rid of body shaming, weight talk, and dieting because it predisposes kids to eating disorders and to eventual weight gain as a result of disordered eating. Since the old way of trying to eliminate obesity tends to make people more prone to illness, there are also new guidelines including emphasizing exercise and nutrition, NOT body size.

That’s all I’ve got. How about you?

body image · eating · eating disorders

Where are the images of orthoxeric men? Or, our culture is so very weird

Scrolling through Facebook, as one might in an airport departure lounge (okay, who am I kidding, as I do everywhere) I burst out laughing when I came across this post from the blog’s Rebecca Kukla:

“Notorious Christina Van Dyke points out (“Eat Y’Self Fitter: Orthorexia, Health, and Gender,” 2018) that if you google image ‘orthorexia,’ the only image you get of a man is of “a very thin, non-standardly-attractive man with painted-black fingernails and tattoos looking anxious and holding an avocado.” This has had me giggling for days. I hereby share the image of troubled tattooed skinny avocado man, who now has been joined, I should note, by troubled tattooed skinny apple man, also here pictured.

Overwhelmingly the images are of ‘pretty’ young white women dressed in white happily drowning in implausibly huge piles of fruits and vegetables. Our culture is SO WEIRD. SO WEIRD PEOPLE.”

Here’s the images:


Here’s Christina Van Dyke’s abstract of her paper:

“Attitudes toward healthy eating and dietary choices are increasingly important components of how people conceive of (and judge) both themselves and others. This chapter examines orthorexia—a condition in which the subject becomes obsessed with identifying and maintaining the ideal diet, rigidly avoiding foods perceived as unhealthy or harmful—and it argues that the condition represents an extreme manifestation of sociocultural norms that people are all being pushed toward. These norms are highly gendered, however, and women and men are thus sometimes portrayed as if they were striving toward radically different goals in the elusive quest for perfect health. Yet what makes orthorexia destructive to both men and women is ultimately a common urge to transcend rather than to embrace the realities of embodiment. In short, orthorexia is best understood as a manifestation of age-old anxieties about human finitude and mortality—anxieties that current dominant sociocultural forces prime people to experience and express in unhealthy attitudes toward healthy eating.”

Because the 80s is my cultural home, here’s The Fall, Eat Y’Self Fitter:

body image · diets · eating · eating disorders · fat · food

Weight Watchers is going after children and Sam thinks that’s extra awful

As you may know, if you’re a blog regular, I hate Weight Watchers.

They’re now marketing to children, offering free classes with parent’s permission. See here.

Rebecca Scritchfield writes,

“Weight Watchers this week announced its plans to offer free six-week memberships to kids as young as 13, beginning this summer. The company’s move is part of a bigger plan to grow revenue and a loyal customer base for life. (Start ’em young, right?) As a health professional and mother, I am appalled. With celebrity names such as Oprah Winfrey, who is on the board of directors, and DJ Khaled, the latest spokesperson for Weight Watchers, the company is on track to exert powerful influence on people far and wide. Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this “free” membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are “problems,” and if you’re at a higher weight, your body needs to be fixed. Thus, kids of all sizes will have something to fear.”

There are many problems with this plan but even if you just care about weight, it’s a disaster.

Study after study shows that early dieting is a huge predictor of weight gain.

The reasons aren’t clear. See Why does dieting predict weight gain in adolescents? Findings from project EAT-II: a 5-year longitudinal study.

I’m one of those kids who joined Weight Watchers and attended with my parents’ permission. I’m not sure if and how that contributed to future weight gain but I do know that I wasn’t really that chubby when I started.

I also know it made me think of myself as someone whose weight, whose body, was a problem to be solved. Best tackle it while you’re young, people would say.

It did start the habit of dieting that persisted through my teens and twenties.

What do you think of Weight Watchers, diets, and weekly weigh ins for children?

Bowls of fruit
Three bowls of breakfast berries, photo by Unsplash
cycling · eating disorders · feminism · fitness · motivation

A return to fitness in 2018 (Guest post)

Biking with a friend

I love to make New Year’s resolutions, although I sometimes have uneven results. My main and most exciting New Year’s resolution for 2018 is to do 218 workouts – they don’t have to be particularly strenuous or any set length but they have to be fun and pleasurable.

I hope that 2018 – the year I turn 40 – will be at my fittest year ever. This isn’t an extreme goal because my fittest year was probably 2011, when I was running regularly, had not yet gotten my driver’s license so cycled everywhere out of necessity, and impulsively bought an expensive personal training program. I was 33, so it is not as if I am trying to re-live athletic teen years, which would be considerably harder. I was actually the type of kid for whom gym class was a nightmare. I walked the field when I was supposed to run, regularly ‘forgot’ my gym clothes, and dreaded group sports when my lack of any skill would be humiliatingly apparent to all my classmates.

I was not fit in any sense of the word until my late twenties when I started to cycle everywhere often, in those years, pulling two children and/or groceries (!!) in a bike trailer. When I was 30 and newly single I decided to try some new activities: running, roller derby, hot yoga, and weight-training. I felt fantastic, met some great people, and began to think of myself as a fit, even athletic, person. I felt strong and powerful and had a lot of fun. I still remember the exhilarating day I ran 13 km for the first time. As someone who a couple years earlier could not run one block, I was extremely proud of myself.

Unfortunately, the fitness activities got confused with and integrated into disordered eating habits, which dulled my enjoyment. Healing from disordered eating, which for me meant restricted eating, and unattainable weight loss goals, meant also giving up some of my fitness goals. But now I am about turn 40, a busy PhD student, community activist, and mom. Giving up a strong focus on fitness may have been necessary for me to heal from disordered eating but it also meant that I lost the physical and emotional benefits of fitness especially the almost magical effect it has on my ability to deal constructively with stress.

I miss the camaraderie that accompanied roller derby practices and group runs. I miss experiencing my body as strong and powerful. When I think about my life in ten and twenty years, I want fitness to be an everyday part of it. So, I have made a plan to get to my fittest this year and to re-discover the joy of fitness.

The plan is simple: do 218 workouts in 2018 which will include some weight-training, a gentle triathlon, and a few no-pressure and fun 5 or 10 km runs.

Maybe I’ll even, finally, attempt a fall half marathon – but only if it brings me joy. I also hope to cycle year-round instead of taking a long winter break after which I always feel hesitant and creaky. The focus, other than doing the 218 workouts, will be on feeling pleasure in moving my body and having fun participating in physical activities with other people.

There will be absolutely no weight loss goals or restricted eating plans and I will steer clear of others who have integrated those elements into their fitness plans and motivations. I’m excited, motivated, and ready to have fun and feel strong!

Kayaking in Venice in 2017

Becky Ellis is a PhD student at Western University who studies the bee-human relationship in cities. She is a mom to four kids and a community activist. Becky loves gardening, cycling at a leisurely pace, and taking millions of pictures of bees. She also maintains the blog Permaculture for the People about social justice and urban permaculture.

eating · eating disorders · fitness

I love air too, but not for lunch

Image description: a colour image of smooth stones--white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has "Just breathe" etched into it.
Image description: a colour image of smooth stones–white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has “Just breathe” etched into it.

I’ve been blogging recently about food alarmism, that annoying tendency some people have to demonize certain foods by talking about how they’ll kill you.

But the most out-there food fad that’s ever come to my attention has got to be “breatharianism.” Sam sent me a link to “‘Breatharian’ couple survives on ‘the universe’s energy’ instead of food.”

This couple–Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello–claims that humans don’t need food and water, that they can survive on the ‘energy of the universe’ alone. Apparently, since 2008 “they have survived on a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just three times a week.” Castello claims to have eaten nothing during the entire nine months of her pregnancy with her first child. Since she wasn’t used to feeling the sensation of hunger, she says, she “lived fully on light and ate nothing.” Considering pregnant women are meant to eat more not fewer calories to support the growing fetus, it doesn’t sound like the best approach to pregnancy.

She said living on air in the breatharian lifestyle also cured her PMS. Ricardo made the astute observation that “breatharianism” is a great way to slash the cost of your food bills.  Now that they have two children, they eat from time to time so they can share that experience with the kids. Castello says:

“Now, Akahi and I eat very sporadically — perhaps three or four times per week at the most. I might have a few vegetables, a juice or a bite of an apple with my children. Sometimes we have a glass of water too.”

“Whenever I eat now, it’s not because I’m hungry — I just don’t remember that sensation.”

Okay. I consider myself a fairly open-minded person who believes in reserving judgment and letting people live their lives as they wish, with the rough qualification that they not harm others. This pair claims not to impose their breatharian lifestyle on their children.

But when they say they don’t eat and instead exist only on the ‘universe’s energy,’ my first thought is that they have to be lying. I’m no scientist (or mystic), but I think we can say with a fair bit of confidence that you can’t live on ‘universal energy’ alone. My second thought is that okay, so they might eat something (a piece of fruit here, veggie broth there, the occasional glass of water every few days), but it’s not enough.  In reading about their approach, it’s not exactly that they demonize food.  They just consider it unnecessary. Food is not unnecessary. Granted, the air we breathe is also necessary. But surely it’s not sufficient to sustain a person? Don’t we have all sorts of science to back this up? This approach to eating, where the end result is to lose the sensation of hunger and eat very little (if not nothing) sounds alarmingly like an eating disorder.

It seems that I’m not the first person to question the veracity and sense of their claims. After the first article (quoted above), they released a clarificatory statement explaining that they actually do eat a bit more than they originally said:

“We do eat, just not with the same frequency or intensity as the average person,” the couple said in a statement to The Post Wednesday. “When we went through the ‘Breatharian’ transition 21-day process, our intention wasn’t to stop eating, but rather to heal on a genetic level, information that gets passed through the generations and manifests in each person in different ways (like ‘hereditary’ information). The not-eating was like a side effect that we freely explored when we were a young couple, without children, and also through Camila’s pregnancy.”

There might be more to it than what I’ve talked about here. They say it involves “conscious breathing” techniques as well. And guess what? They offer courses on that which range in price from $200 to $1700.

The upshot here is this: it’s a variation on a food fad. You can dress it up with “universal energy” and “conscious breathing,” but in the end it’s just another way of depriving yourself of food. I’m the last person to tell people what they should eat. But please, please, eat something. And eat enough.

If you’ve heard of any other equally outrageous food fads, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.




diets · eating · eating disorders · food

Sugar free September? Good God no?


Image result for sugar free september

We’ve thought a lot about sugar here on the blog. There was Tracy’s plan to dump sugar, your reaction, and her change in plans. See her posts Dumping Sugar: this is not a detox. and Dumping the Sugar Dump: critical follow up.

I’m officially leery of quitting sugar entirely. See Six reasons this feminist isn’t giving up sugar and Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff.

And I think I can safely say, for me at least, I don’t want to open up that particular can of worms again for awhile. However, our experience of blogging about sugar convinced me that it’s controversial and complicated. This issue isn’t easy.

That’s why I was super surprised to see the Canadian Cancer Society advocating Sugar Free September.

About Sugar-Free September

Fancy a month off the sweet stuff to help raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society?

Sugar-Free September challenges you to go sugar-free for 30 days to raise vital funds for the Canadian Cancer Society to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer.

Commit to quitting the cookies and brownies, lock up the doughnuts, ditch the candies and kick the sugar habit by signing up to Sugar-Free September and raise money for life-saving research and vital services for people living with cancer.

Most Canadians consume diets high in added sugar, which can lead to excess weight gain. Research shows that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer.

Get your health and body back on track by reducing your intake of food and drinks with added sugars from your diet for an entire month! It’s a great way to learn how easy it is to moderate consumption while also feeling the benefits of healthier eating.

Image result for sugar free september

I worry that this feeds into food fear and that very little good can come of it. I worry that people who want an excuse to adopt a very restrictive diet will find this appealing. And I worry it will hurt people with a history of eating disorders.

But that’s me. I’m the over-thinking worrying sort. Pretty much an occupational hazard!

What do you think? And if you’re doing sugar free September, how’s it going so far?

Image result for worrying