I’m an online counsellor at Kooth working with children and young people. Having worked in an Eating Disorder Service, this is where my particular interest lies.
When I look back to my own childhood, especially when I think about food and mealtimes, I see how complex life has become for young people and the many changes that have taken place. At Christmas, it occurred to me that the ‘special’ seasonal food we all indulge in would at one time have constituted a rare and indulgent treat. The abundance of food on the supermarket shelves today, however, means that ‘treats’ have lost their value: having chocolate, cake, and desserts is no longer ‘special’.
In addition, fewer families eat together. Some children tell me that they construct their own meals from what they find in the fridge or breadbin. For these young people, eating is arbitrary and chaotic.
So when we look at the obesity problem in the UK, we should remember that overweight youngsters are not the guilty party but are perhaps “victims” of the food that is available for them to eat.
At the same time, there is an immense pressure on young people to have the ‘right’ body shape. While they might be ‘graded’ by classmates and peers according to their appearance, and bullied if they don’t fit in, those who don’t possess the ideal body can end up turning to food for comfort. Others, including a rising number of boys and young men, start exercising to extremes and using protein supplements to achieve the ‘right’ body shape.
Obesity in the UK is described as an ‘epidemic’ and it’s clear that there is no easy solution. The question is how we can best support people to make small, achievable goals to improve their diets (“I will eat a piece of fruit as a snack instead of crisps”) and encourage more physical activity (“I will walk to school on Wednesdays”). Achieving one small change engenders a sense of achievement which makes it easier to maintain and build on.
During Obesity Awareness Week, my hope is that we can make more progress towards establishing positive role models for healthy body shapes and encourage a different attitude to exercise. Making help accessible for children and young people so that they can talk about weight, shape and eating problems is one of the first steps in getting the right support to make changes.
Ros Rheinberg, Counsellor at XenZone