Society is infatuated with food and I do not mean the healthy, organic, and fresh foods of the market next door. Seriously, how many people wake up and say, “On my way to work today, I’m going to stop at the market for a fresh bowl of broccoli for breakfast.” Insert noticeable pause waiting for that one nerdy girl to stand up and say, “Hey, I dream of broccoli” at which point we all roll our eyes and say, “Sure”. So let me rephrase. Normal people do not wake up craving broccoli.
The hunger drive tells us to eat by sending us signals such as a rumble in our stomachs. What we eat depends upon our food schemas. Food schemas are how we categorize the foods we know. For example, I believe eggs belong mostly in the breakfast schema whereas pot roast belongs in the dinner schema. We form many different schemas about the foods we eat. We place them into categories such as healthy, unhealthy, sweet, sour, salty, rich, comforting, disgusting, etc. When I say roasted turkey what is the first thing that comes to mind? Thanksgiving dinner, right? However, individuals who do not celebrate Thanksgiving have a completely different schema pertaining to roasted turkey. Many different factors influence the building of food schemas; most importantly, the people who bring us home from the hospital and raise us to adults are most responsible for how we construct our food schema.
If I had to pick a message to drive into the brains of parents with very young children, I would explain the importance of providing healthy food choices for their children. A child’s primary food schema is formed by the time he or she is five years old. Let me say that again because this is profoundly important to understand. A child’s primary food schema is formed by the time he or she is five years old. Healthy food choices early in life will help protect your child from becoming overweight or obese in childhood and in adulthood.
According to the American Heart Association (2012), one out of every three children between the ages of 2-19 is either overweight or obese (American Heart Association, 2012, p. 1). Further, one out of every six children between the ages of 2-19 is obese (p.1). Children who are overweight are 70% more likely to be overweight as adults and 80% more likely if one or both parents are overweight. There are five times as many overweight children today than there were 40 years ago. This, my friends, is what we call an epidemic.
Chronic overweight and obesity is a disease that is completely preventable and it all comes back to food schemas and what we teach our children about food choices. If it sounds as though I am pointing the finger of blame at parents, that is correct. Certainly, there are genetic factors that come into play but the responsibility for ensuring a child’s health falls upon the primary caretakers. Most parents I know would not freely give their toddlers and young children cigarettes to smoke so why are they giving them unhealthy foods to eat? Better stated, why are they not providing a safe and healthy environment for their children? It is time to wake up and call it what it is. Allowing a child to become overweight or obese is, at the very least, a form of childhood neglect.
There is a mentality among individuals that makes them believe that their children are missing out on some good things in life if they are not allowed to experience all those unhealthy foods that so many crave. How can a child miss something they have never had or seen? Cow tongue might be the most awesome food ever but I have never tried it so I do not miss it. It is impossible to miss something you have never known. However, if I am watching somebody eat cow tongue and notice how much he or she is enjoying it, I will likely want to try it. Even at this point, I could walk away and never really think about it again. One can only crave food after it has been tasted and forms an emotional connection to it. Our emotional connection to food is what keeps us coming back to it repeatedly. I have no emotional connection to a plain bowl of broccoli. However, pour some creamy cheese sauce over it, and that is a game changer. Right? A plain slice of Wonder Bread is not very exciting. A slice of homemade bread, hot from the oven, smeared with butter can almost make your heart skip a beat. Why? Because we have formed an emotional connection to it. However, if a person has not eaten in days, a plain bowl of broccoli or a plain slice of bread is going to mean something different. He or she would eat that food, and be very happy to do so, because he or she knows the body needs something to eat. The bottom line is, most of us do not eat the foods we eat because we are hungry; we eat because it tastes good and makes us feel good to eat it. I can almost hear the bells and whistles going off as people read this. Most people do not think about the emotional dependency upon food like I do. However, they should because I believe this type of understanding is the key to combating and eliminating obesity in our society.
Our society does not appreciate food for its value. They use food carelessly and mindlessly without considering its true purpose. Food is amazing and should never be taken for granted. Many, if not most, of our modern chefs have grasped this concept and now treat food with great care and consideration. The care they take in preparing a dish is their way of showing appreciation for the food they have. Many cultures hunt the food they eat. They worship and thank the animal that has given its life so that they can eat. The next time you sit down for a meal, make sure you are hungry. Consider the animal that gave its life. Consider the farmer that grew and harvested the vegetables. Consider the person who prepared the meal. And most of all, teach your children to do the same.
In my next post I will discuss how to establish healthy food schemas for children. I will leave you now with a few helpful tips:
• Do not use food to comfort a child.
• Be a positive model for food choices
• Meals should be eaten at the table
American Heart Association. (2012). Statistical fact sheet 2012 Update: Overweight & obesity. Retrieved from American Heart Association: http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_319588.pdf