Healthy Messages?

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It is impossible to walk through a grocery store these days and not feel conflicted by the images plastered over magazine covers. Headlines like “Lose Your Belly Fat in Just 10 Days!” or “Best and Worst Beach Bodies” are stacked right alongside cooking magazines with recipes for Decadent Chocolate Cake and Triple Cheeseburgers.

Not all cooking magazines, of course, are full of recipes for such calorie-dense foods and not all cheeseburgers (or chocolate cakes) are bad for you. But the contrast between these two “realities” is striking. And finding balance – between what we’re told we should look like and what we we’re told we should want to eat – is difficult. Even for adults. Imagine how it must feel to teens.

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While they may experience very grown-up emotions, teen brains are still very immature. In particular their pre-frontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls planning, working memory, impulse control, organization, and helps to modulate mood, goes through a considerable growth-spurt during adolescence. Other regions of the brain, and the connections between them, are also still developing and they require pruning and strengthening before they begin to fully resemble those of adults.

It’s because these “higher order” regions of the brain are still learning to work together that the images plastered across the grocery check-outs are potentially so dangerous: teens are still developing the skills they need to make positive decisions. They are also still developing their identity and {hopefully} healthy self-image and self-esteem, which are critical for being able to view headlines and images through a more critical lens.

The apparent obsession with the thin-ideal and the idea of a “perfect” body, which is promoted by many mainstream media outlets and widely available in those grocery-store aisles, can lead to dangerous behaviors in young people, especially with respect to food. It is estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. More concerning, over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.

Years ago I wrote about how often girls (and women) experience comments about their looks rather than their interests. At the time, there was an article citing that nearly half of all 3-6 year olds expressed concern about their weight. Their WEIGHT. I’m sure the numbers are even more staggering among older kids. 

So what is a parent to do? When these are the messages that bombard our kids, daily, and that fly in the face of any long-term goal we might have for them (or they for themselves!) regarding their own self-image, habits, or self-esteem?

We are to TALK TO THEM.

There is growing evidence that conversations focused on healthful eating had protective effects against disordered eating behaviors in a racially diverse group of adolescents. This pattern was observe among overweight and non-pverweight teens alike, and occurred regardless of which parent (mother vs. father) as having the conversation. What’s more, teens who had only one parent engage in healthy eating conversations had a lower occurrence of unhealthy weight-control behaviors compared to teens who either or both parents engage or who had no conversations at all.    

So, the next time you’re stuck at the check-out, and you see your teens eyes wander to those images, ask them what they think. Ask them what they see. Talk to them about what you think and about what you see. Ask them anything. Just ask.

 

* A version of this post initially appeared at Mind Positive Parenting, which you can find here.

 

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