Food Fright

Kids' out-of-control eating: what's behind it, how to talk about it, and when and where to get help. 

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During her first few months of high school, my daughter,  Esmé ,snuck food into her room nearly every night. And nearly every morning, I cleaned up the remains: discarded candy wrappers, crumpled bags of chips, stacks of empty plates and bowls streaked with peanut butter or pie filling. In those moments, I was like a reluctant forensics expert at a crime scene. I collected the evidence, but I was completely unwilling to admit that it pointed to a real problem for my sweet 14-year-old suspect. 

Prior to the start of freshman year, Esmé had eaten her fair share of the cookies, chips and other treats I tossed into our grocery cart against my better judgment. Her constant pleading that “Mom, I’m still a kid and I should be able to eat what I want” wore down my resolve even after she reached puberty and started putting on weight due to her junk food habit. But at least she ate in the open. Now, possibly to avoid having to explain herself, Esmé chose to sneak snacks behind closed doors. It seemed high school had brought with it a new set of pressures, the least of which were a lengthy commute and about three hours of homework a night. Confronted with adult decisions, out-of-control hormones and stress to achieve, she was likely trying to eat her way out of an emotional funk.

I had faced similar pressures in high school—hadn’t we all?—but social media takes that nagging stress to a whole other level. Every night a nonstop parade of selfie posts commandeered her Facebook page, begging for attention. She told me that if her classmates don’t get at least 100 likes on a profile picture in one night, they immediately take down the photo and replace it with another image. With her deep-olive skin and brunette waves straight out of a shampoo commercial, Esmé has nothing to be ashamed about. But by last winter she was taller and broader than most of the girls and boys in her grade. She’d developed seemingly overnight and her clothes fit more snugly than they had when we bought them back in September. I’m sure all this added to her self-consciousness—as well as her desire to sneak junk food. Whereas once she’d relied on me for comfort, now she turned to packaged snacks.

At a loss for how to handle the situation, I went to Google. From what I could gather, Esmé was likely suffering from emotional problems that could easily escalate into binge eating disorder (BED). The symptoms range from hiding or stockpiling food to eat in secret to feeling guilty, disgusted or depressed after overeating. Surprisingly, BED is more common han anorexia and bulimia combined: 1.6% of all American teens have it, compared with 0.3% who have anorexia and 0.9% who struggle with bulimia. 

On the message boards of parenting websites, I found other moms facing similar struggles. But there were more complaints and questions than answers in their posts. “We just sat down to breakfast and tried to pour the maple syrup only to realize that the liter jug was empty,” one wrote. “I put treats on top of a cabinet,” another said. “Then I discovered my 10-year-old was climbing onto the countertops and standing up to reach them!” Though the situations were as individual as our kids, the trait we all shared was frustration bordering on exasperation.

I tried to be a healthy role model for my daughter. After making an effort in my early 40s to lose the excess pounds that had crept up over the years, I continued cooking low-fat meals and sampling new classes at the gym. But rather than follow my lead, Esmé wrote off my behaviors as annoying and embarrassing. Her father, Eric, was no better. At 357 pounds, his belly fat protruded from the bottom of his shirt. Every night, as if to counteract the healthy dinner I’d prepared, he walked in the door with a jumbo bag of tortilla chips and devoured it while watching the news. Although he would chastise Esmé when he heard her rifling through the cabinets for late-night snacks,
she ignored him—and who can blame her, given his behavior?