So far, while briefly conveying my research on food addiction, I have addressed the parental and family influences that potentially breed disordered eating in children. This blog attests to research that ties certain environmental influences to the dangerous effects of children’s disordered eating. These environmental influences concern trends in physical activity, increased stress, the media, changing food markets, and changes in the labor force.
Research shows a decline in physical activity in the past several decades due to increased use of cars, fewer home chores, increased sedentary behavior (namely screen time), less physical education in the home and in school, and fewer safe areas for children to play outside. What this trend comes down to is more energy intake and less energy expenditure, contributing to unhealthy habits that breed obesity. Another environmental factor contributing to disordered eating in children is the increase stress they face in their lives. Children are using food as a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety in the same way they may choose to use drugs and alcohol. Their lives are more fast-paces, more complicated, and more competitive. Research attests to the relationship between weight and mood disturbances.
On a vaster societal level, environmental changes that specifically affect children’s overeating and unhealthy eating behaviors include media, changing food markets, and a changing labor force. The media to which children are exposed successfully market to them cheap, energy-dense food and passive entertainment. The increased screen time in which children partake contributes to their greater exposure to sedentary behavior and to commercials that target children as consumers of sugary, fatty foods. Additionally, the changing food market has increased the availability and consumption of high-fat high-calorie food. The changing labor force exacerbates the problematic food market trends by disallowing working parents to take the time to prepare food at home. Thus, children are increasingly eating food away from home, generally pre-prepared or fast food.
Solving these environmental problematic influences requires a community-wide approach, but I reiterate that changes must begin in the home. Parents can increase physical activity in the family’s lifestyle, even in small increments, they can advocate for outdoor recess at school, provide healthful meals, limit screen time, and model appropriate eating attitudes and behaviors. On a greater social level, food quality must be improved, people must be educated about the dangers of overeating and unhealthy eating, school interventions must be implemented, and safe play areas in neighborhoods must become a priority for local government. None of these changes are simple and they will not occur simultaneously. However, the dangers of disordered eating in children are too great to delay making the efforts we have the time and resources to make.
Kristy L. Carlisle is a school counselor and a mental health counselor in training at Rider University. Her interests include protecting children from cyber-bullying and from food addiction.