Many eating disorders are self-inflicted. But I would posit that there is a whole different eating disorder beyond anorexia, bulimia and others that exists. No one talks about it…I think they may be in denial. What is it? I call it adult feeding disorder—the obsessive need for parents to worry about and control the food intake of those around them. (Note: This has nothing to do with the early-stage feeding issues that infants have, also called “feeding disorder.”)
I have no idea if my version of this disorder exists on any diagnostic code lists. I think not, since there isn’t a drug or therapeutic strategy to cure it. I actually made up the concept while having a discussion with Bottom Line eating disorder expert Joanne Labiner, LCSW, at one of our recent Experts Dinners. But think about it…
During the 1950s/1960s, food was pretty much food—mom typically cooked three wholesome meals a day. Eating disorders came in “vogue” in the 1970s along with three other significant cultural changes—packaged convenience foods were introduced…food became a topic of conversation thanks to all the new innovations…and the divorce rate soared, so suddenly single women—and men—started trying to look their best again. And then, in 1982, Jane Fonda’s exercise videos were launched and the health/fitness craze was born.
Fast-forward to present day—today’s parents were raised to be fitness- and appearance-conscious, and they are obsessed with micromanaging and creating perfect lives for their perfect children.
Translation? For those with adult feeding disorder, every food craze gets incorporated into the family DNA. There was the low-fat/no-fat phase…the vegetarian craze…the sushi craze…the gluten-free and everyone-is-gluten-intolerant phase…the sugar-free phase…and now we are in the organic-everything phase. These parents compare food choices with their friends…announce their new healthy findings from Trader Joe’s to their children…and their house is the one that offers healthy snacks on Halloween.
Most of these crazes actually are quite healthy, and the foods are far better than the canned green beans and Fruit Loops of my youth. Adult feeding disorder is not about the actual food choices that are being made. It’s what parents with feeding disorders are doing with those choices.
Parents with adult feeding disorder manage the menus at home and make frequent speeches about what is or isn’t right or—worse—what is “bad” for their children. But in the end, they are creating an unhealthy home. Why? Because with every new food fad comes judgmental messaging that sabotages the next generation’s self-confidence and independence. The children are not only absorbing the traditional messages about food and their bodies…they also are not developing the skills to evaluate and select foods for themselves. Is it a wonder that children are becoming both obsessed with and paranoid about food?
Mind you, I am the first to admit that food is discussed far more often in my house than it should be, partly because of my own comeuppance from past poor nutrition and partly because of the many studies I read about the power of food to both heal and destroy. In fact, I probably have my own feeding disorder. I’m sure my husband and daughters would agree!
Thankfully in spite of my food focus, my family has remained on the healthy side of eating. Both daughters are fit and have hearty appetites that are satisfied with high-quality, balanced diets. My husband, who grew up out West in the land of tacos and cheeseburgers, has significantly cut down on his beef and cheese intake and significantly increased his consumption of salads and other “green” foods. I like to think that I educated the girls and inspired my husband. What I did not do was shame them or guilt them.
The fact of the matter is, just like with all child-rearing, parents only have a few years to instill good habits and lessons. As soon as kids reach school age, they start being influenced by what their peers are eating and doing. Parents can, and should, model healthy behavior, but imposing our obsessions with food on loved ones with speeches and judgment only creates power struggles and esteem issues. Quite an irony when the intention of all those healthy choices is good health and strong self-esteem.