July 2009

Inherent Personality, Inherent Eating Style

This weekend New York Times Magazine’s cover story is by Frank Bruni, The Times’ restaurant critic, and is entitled: “This Boy’s Appetite”.  Given my work in the field of eating disorders and prevention with kids and eating problems, I read it with relish. 

I thought of the parents who have come to me for help with their children who literally “can’t stop eating”.   Mr. Bruni’s vivid descriptions of his ravenous appetite, even as a toddler, brings the point home that this was not a psychological or a family issue, at this point.  His two brothers had their own unique eating styles. (I think one was a Beige Food Eater, and the other the Picky Eater, Mr. Bruni, you are the Food Demander; 3 out of the 6 childhood eating styles I write about.)

These innate differences in appetite and hence, eating style and behavior, are coming to be better understood with the work of researchers like Walter Kaye MD, at the University of California, San Diego. I call Dr. Kaye the ‘rock star’ of eating disorder research as he has through the years, begun to identify the differences in what he calls: “The Hedonics of Eating”. Via brain imaging studies we now can see that there are physiological differences in the brains of anorexics and bulimics.  For anorexics food is actually experienced as toxic and to be avoided, the opposite for compulsive overeaters and some bulimics.

This is a very broad way of talking about the research, but basically, the idea is that there are differences in the brain biology that contribute to disordered eating.The understanding of appetite disturbance and eating disorders has been broadened from what used to be a mainly psychological vantage point.  As treatment models have shifted to more of a psycho-educational approach, families can breathe a sigh of relief from the guilt they may feel to learning real ways to address the problems when their kid’s eating is becoming disordered.

A relatively small percentage of the population develops full -blown eating disorders.  However, a massive percentage of people are always trying to lose weight.  These attempts can result in disordered eating. Aside from anything, when simply the idea that you ‘should not eat’ is driven into the psyche, (which is hard to get away from unless we move to a country where the body ideal is substantially larger; remember I said the body ideal, not the body reality), the urge to eat can become even more of an obsession and preoccupation.

There are some kids who come into this world without the ability to ‘self-regulate’. This is the ability to stop when full without any outside help. For these kids, parents can play a role in helping them, without giving them an eating disorder.  This may feel tricky as parents worry about hurting self esteem, or if they have another child who they are desperate to feed.  

As in most things parenting, one size does not fit all.  The good news is that there are relatively straightforward and matter of fact ways to approach differences in eating behaviors. Thank you Mr. Bruni, for writing about your love for food from an early age.  Let’s hope that everyone can find a way to stop fighting with food, and take pleasure in their appetites.  Part of feeling full requires taking guilt off the menu.

Here’s to freedom with food!

For help with eating disorders, go to: www.neda.org 

Mamas Unite!

This from Urbanmama.com, a blog/website based in Portland, Oregon

Michael Pollan on feeding children

I’ve long subscribed to a variant of the theories out of Take the Fight Out of Food, an excellent book I recommend to those who are suffering from food issues. While I don’t always execute my theories quite as they’re devised in the ideal parenting lab that is my brain (ahh, if only I could be the perfect mama I have designed there!), they’ve been working pretty well for me. Essentially, the concept is to present a variety of healthful food options, and occasional treats, constantly expose your children to new foods, but never make a big deal out of what they actually eat. Don’t set up “good” and “bad” foods; use words more along the lines of “foods that make your taste buds happy” and describe the physical benefits of other foods; protein gives you strength and makes your brain work better, etc. (And along the lines of our sweets conversation, Donna Fish, the author, has a great post on how to handle dessert battles here.)

So I was thrilled to read this interview with Michael Pollan, one of my writerly food heroes, about his now-16-year-old son and his past food issues. He was a “white food eater” when he was young; he’d eat chicken, potatoes, bread, rice, and nothing else. Upon reflection, Pollan believed this was due to his need to reduce sensory input (he doesn’t say it, but I wonder if the boy was diagnosed with a sensory integration disorder). In fact, it was his son’s “tortured” relationship with food that got him interested in writing about it.

About two years ago, Pollan’s son began to suddenly expand his food repertoire, and after working in a kitchen for a summer began cooking seriously, and is now a “food snob” who makes a port wine reduction to go with the grass-fed steak his dad cooks for dinner. (I can only dream.)

It’s a relief to a mama like me.

My two older boys couldn’t be more different in their food habits. Everett, who’s about to turn 7, was a white foodie (and still, to some extent, is now); chicken nuggets and white bread and tortillas and ice cream and only a few varieties of potatoes were his main calories for many years. He now eats all kinds of berries, many kinds of other fresh and canned fruit, whole grain breads (though he prefers lily white flour and will choose white bread over whole grain whenever it’s available), some non-white, non-fried meats (especially sausage and pepperoni), and the occasional bean burrito, but many foods are a struggle. I was thrilled this winter when we discovered he loved broccoli raab, and I now make any green vegetable sauteed with garlic and lots of butter and he will often eat it. He amazed me by asking for salad a few months ago. Maybe kids can change!

Truman, on the other hand, is a four-year-old who will only eat strong-flavored foods, and refuses to eat fresh fruit (he’ll happily eat dried fruits of all kinds, though). Sample meals: a can of sardines and six whole-wheat crackers. A rice tortilla with honey. Feta cheese cut up into TINY little pieces! Lamb shoulder roast with ketchup. A half-cup of hazelnut butter. Two bowls of chocolate ice cream.

I try, constantly urging them to take just one little bite of whatever it is they won’t eat — a raspberry, an exceptional piece of cheese, a spoonful of potato-leek soup — and typically I’m left frustrated. They’ll always pick candy over any other option, it seems (and I keep candy in short supply as a result; also, I no longer eat sugar and it starts driving me crazy after a while). I do what Pollan suggested; grow a ton of our own food so that I can inspire them, connecting them to the fresh real delicious stuff that food can be.

Still. It’s a slow process and Pollan is a perfect example of that (I know he’s been gardening for decades). Yesterday, I was thrilled by this: Truman discovered he liked fresh shelling peas. The LITTLE TINY peas! he said, scrunching up his shoulders the way he does when he asks me to cut up his feta cheese. And he did it without any urging from me (though I’ve begged and pleaded with him to try one, just one! as his little brother and I shovel them in our mouths these past several weeks).

Victory in peas. Hurray!

Posted by cafemama on July 08, 2009 at 03:16 PM | Permalink