Kids are Eating Fewer Calories — and developing eating disorders?

On February 21, 2013 the New York Times published an article about how American children are eating fewer calories than a decade ago. America has an obesity epidemic, so this is a good thing, right? Sure, maybe. First, though, before we get into any discussion, I’d like to point out that the New York Times failed to list their source – the Centers for Disease Control – or the age range in the study. The age range is important, because according to the American Heart Association boys and girls under age 1 need about 900 calories a day, while teenage girls need 1,800 – 2,000 (2,200 for teen boys) calories a day.

Now, it’s been a while since I did serious math but it seems like finding an average caloric intake for children between ages 2 and 19 – the age range this study covered – might lead to some false conclusions. For the record the study found:

For boys [ages 2-19], calorie consumption declined by about 7 percent to 2,100 calories a day over the period of the analysis, from 1999 through 2010. For girls [ages 2-19], it dropped by 4 percent to 1,755 calories a day.

Interesting, but irrelevant. Does this mean that children are consuming fewer calories across the board? Are the ages evenly distributed (so that, for instance, there isn’t a screw toward children on the younger end of the spectrum compared to a decade ago)?

Ah, if only there was a chart that could clarify this! Oh wait. There is. Check it out. If only the New York Times and other news sources had bothered to examine more of the information being presented to them, or look at it more closely.

Instead, the Times decided to simply quote an expert (and fear-monger): “To reverse the current prevalence of obesity, these [declines] have to be a lot bigger,” said Marion Nestle. The message being sent is clear: we need to do more to keep our children from being obese. We need to restrict their calories more!

But wait! Let’s look a little closer and what this whole study is really saying:

Over all, calories from fat remained stable, while those from protein increased and those from carbohydrates fell. The calorie decline was most pronounced among boys ages 2 to 11, and among teenage girls (NY Times)

Right, let’s examine that chart again. Caloric intake significantly dropped for boys 6-11 years old (anyone want to venture guesses about what’s going on with these boys?), and for teen girls (at least compared to 2003-04).

Teenage girls (ages 12-19) are eating, on average, the same number of calories as their 6-11 year old counterparts. I find this particularly alarming in light of statistics that quote that over half of teenage girls “use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives” (ANAD), and that approximately half of girls between 5th – 12th grad wanted to lose weight.

To me, somewhere in this, should be a discussion about anorexia. The fact that we’re not talking about it – and that, in fact, sources are encouraging children to continue cutting calories alarms me. In particular, it worries the part of me that wanted to be “healthy” and so cut calories while increasing exercise. It worries the part of me that entered into the world of eating disorders at least in part because of news stories like this one.

But that discussion doesn’t seem to be happening in the news, at least not yet. That discussion rarely seems to happen, in general, at least in the circles I’m around – which include people who work in schools and who see late-teen girls dieting themselves into the same bodies they had when they were 11.

Excited about this yet? Because it gets better. It always gets better. The study also broke down by race (as long as the participants were white, non-hispanic black, or Mexican American) consumption of fats, proteins, and carbs. Let the racialized stereotypes start rolling in!

I’m a bit more interested, personally, in talking about this from a stand-point of income, or housing location (there are, after all, fewer options in food deserts than in a place that has a Trader Joe’s on the corner).

And the issue of food options for people with less income is an article unto itself, and something many people have written about. What I’d like to see, as a part of discussions that take place about this study is a real conversation beginning about eating disorders. I’d like for that discussion to include anorexia – as something more than just what white privileged girls do – but also touch on other eating disorders.

I’m ready for these discussions to start, in earnest, talking about the messages we send our children about what it means to be beautiful, what it means to be fit, what it means to be healthy.

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