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Facets of Hunger in Childhood Obesity

October 19, 2010

Georgia Peach

Don’t you love it when somebody brings up an angle that isn’t discussed much, but maybe ought to be? That’s what Deborah Schoeberlein did, in a piece for the Huffington Post, called “Overweight Kids? Feed Them Compassion and Mindfulness.” She’s talking about the childhood obesity epidemic:

Society has labeled this situation a public health disaster, but all too often the kids internalize the message and feel that they are the problem.

What is the answer? The answer is something that doesn’t raise taxes, incur any out-of-pocket expense, or require any legislation to be passed. We’ll get back to that. A recent post, “When There Is Nothing to Do but Eat,” has attracted the attention of a huge number of people who sent in comments, like this one from “clairela”:

I had everything I needed as a kid, but didn’t get everything I wanted.

That’s not a bad thing. Experiencing the sensation of hunger once in a while is not a bad thing, either. Here is what one reader (who had commented under the username “The Simple Life of a Country Man’s Wife”) says:

You make a valuable point about helping children understand genuine hunger. I wonder if people ever allow their bodies to feel hunger because it’s constantly fed. I know I have to challenge myself to that mentality.

Okay, returning to journalist Deborah Schoeberlein, who also teaches children and teens, develops curricular materials, and provides professional development for teachers. She is the author of Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness (PDF), and believes that compassion is the ultimate comfort food — the real one, and the only one that really works. And that is what overweight kids are really hungry for.

Schoeberlein is not into blame, and wants to help parents figure out how to avoid criticizing or shaming their kids. Being judgmental sometimes feels right, but, the trouble is, judgment-based treatments don’t work in the long run. Just being honest with a kid or anybody else is sometimes not enough, you need a bit of finesse. Here’s some advice from Schoeberlein:

So, it boils down to this: if you want your kid to achieve a healthy weight (notice the framing here), then express that desire with as much love as you can, provide as many practical aids as possible and stay present to support your child in the process.

Food is everywhere, especially in places where it’s a long-established tradition, like movie theaters. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to see several films in theaters with no tempting popcorn aroma or rustling candy wrappers. It was an amazing experience. In a letter that recently appeared in Pediatric News (PDF), Dr. Pretlow said,

The food-rich environment is frequently blamed as the main cause of the childhood obesity epidemic… But the environment is the precipitant rather than the underlying cause. It may be that the comforting response to pleasurable food is actually an innate biological coping mechanism. Even so, increased stress in our kids, in conjunction with the overabundant, pleasurable, comfort food environment, has pushed that coping mechanism into overload. It is stressed kids, hooked on cheap, widely available ‘comfort food drugs,’ with which we need to deal.

The social aspect can be tricky and difficult to navigate without hurting any feelings or alienating anybody. Church, for instance, is a lovely place with beautiful people, and every meeting, gathering, or event, no matter how small, is accompanied by refreshments. This is splendid, of course. Sharing food is the most direct, instinctive way to welcome and nurture our fellow humans, and it’s totally appropriate in a church environment. In another way, it’s not so good. Many people bring sliced oranges or apples, but there are plenty of cookies involved, too. Very tasty cookies.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Overweight Kids? Feed Them Compassion and Mindfulness,” Huffington Post, 05/20/10
Source: “When There Is Nothing to Do but Eat,” Childhood Obesity News, 10/15/10
Source: “Pediatric News: Letters” (PDF),, 09/10
Image by Bruce Tuten, used under its Creative Commons license.

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