This weekend the New York Times Magazine's cover story is by Frank Bruni, the Times' restaurant critic, and is titled: "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, M.D., at the University of California, San Diego. I call Dr. Kaye the 'rock star' of eating disorder research as he has begun to identify the differences in what he calls "The Hedonics of Pleasure". 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 more information visit me at: www.donnafish.com
For help with eating disorders, go to: www.neda.org