01.12.2007 Relationships

Is Fat the Messenger?

Is there more to the current epidemic of childhood obesity than simply eating too much and not exercising enough? asks Nabila Cowasjee

The nation is shuddering and wobbling in the shadow of the "O beast" that is currently a hot topic in government, schools and homes alike. We are all fatter, heavier and less healthy than we should be - all of us, our children included! The statistics are frightening and all the good people in authority are slowly waking up to the fact that preventative medicine has its place in society, because now a significant proportion of our tax dollars is being chewed up by the health system trying to cope with this crisis.

What is causing this epidemic of overweight children? Is it just overeating and a lack of exercise? I am not sure it's as simple as that. Even if it's just a question of excess food, most psychologists will tell you that the root cause of carrying around those extra kilos really lies in the torrid belly of our emotions and psyche, and that in order to find better balance on the scales, we need to investigate the underlying causes of our need to eat to feel better.

There is no doubt that food, exercise and stress, which are the accepted mainstream causes for our heaving nation, do indeed play a crucial and significant role in managing a healthy weight. A diet consisting of foods that are closest to source seems a good way to go and frankly, in my idealist bubble, I would love to see government take all the foods that have little or no nutritional value off the shelves. From the soapbox in my bubble, I argue that legislation needs to put its money where its mouth is and prevent companies from profiting from food products that contribute to our sick nation. Courage and conviction are the necessary ingredients those in power would be advised to foster in these matters, but, understandably, this could be a long time coming. I put the idea out there and hope that the Collective Conscious pencils it in her diary!

We do need to prioritise and accept that cooking is not an option, but, rather, an essential part of everyday life.

If our jobs and responsibilities do not allow us to find short periods in the day to shop for, and prepare, sustaining and nutrient-filled meals for our families from fresh foods closest to their natural state,there is something wrong with the system. If we do not have time or inclination to sit and enjoy good food in stress-free surroundings, we are on the wrong track. It doesn't matter how much information or research is done into this epidemic of poor health, nutrition and obesity, science can do little for us if we choose to ignore these crucial facts.

I imagine there are very few people in Australia today who are completely oblivious to the "five veg and two fruit" campaign and the need to get some physical activity into their day. I do not discount that social and economic factors do play a role in how healthy we are. But my knowledge and experience in a number of so called Third World countries exposed me to real poverty(and affluence) and lack of education, yet, surprisingly, many of these disadvantaged children did not suffer from the "dis-ease" with regard to their bodies that I "feel" amongst children here.

By virtue of being a bit of an armchair metaphysician and a protagonist for children's issues, I pondered on the possibility that the increasing number of children experiencing weight gain may have little to do with excess food and a lack of exercise and more to do with that loose, umbrella term "stress".

Metaphorically speaking, there is an increasing acceptance that the accumulation of fat on the body may be a result of feeling the need for protection. On a very raw level,research does make links between abuse and obesity. Not for one moment am I suggesting that all children who suffer from excess weight are abused in the traditiona land direct sense of the word, but why is it that we have an increasing number of children who display this need for protection? What factors on a social and global level might be creating the need for children to put up a "wall" in these modern times where much attention has been given to children's rights and safety?

Is this epidemic of obesity in children linked to their loss of personal power?

If piling on the pounds has a relationship to feeling unprotected, are our children feeling less safe and more powerless than we are aware of? In our enthusiasm to "do right" by our kids, are we in danger of bullying them on many different and subtle levels? I watched a debate on TV the other night on childcare. The issue centered on how more quality childcare could, and should, be provided. A dark shadow crossed my heart when I heard that more childcare was needed for the zero to three years old age group.

Unlike many other species, human beings are generally born singly. Multiple births are still the exception and medics advise to space subsequent births for the wellbeing of the mother and the child.

Perhaps there are other reasons for these singular births. Do we, as a species, need time and space to develop healthily, emotionally and physically? Do children need a relatively small social circle for a few years rather than being part of a much bigger group? We have the RSPCA monitoring cruelty to animals and you'd likely have an officer knocking on your door if you bred dogs and gave them away earlier than eight weeks. So where is the logic in thinking that little human beings, as complex as they are, are fit to be separated from their kin so soon?

One day as I sat observing children in one of those indoor playgrounds during the school holidays, I noticed that the children in groups from the childcare centres seemed dulled and numbed to the horrendous din that echoed all around us. They were herded into groups, ordered around and appeared to follow like automatons their cues to eat, drink and take off their shoes. Others displayed poor and attention seeking behaviour, and frankly, why wouldn't you? You would be competing with 30 other children to be "heard" at a time in your development where the world is essentially all about you. While this is not a criticism of childcare, should we really be subjecting young children to these regimens where they have no real voice? Are we protecting our children enough, or are we pushing them through a mill at warp speed and could the weight debate do well to address these areas?

The evolution of education has given rise, in recent times, to increased stresses, utopian expectations and a greater workload. These requirements seem to be leaking into the system further down the ladder into preschools and even childcare. Where has childhood gone? The hazy days of kicking a ball around the park in the early afternoon have been replaced by tuition, reams of homework and working to targets from the age of three. It is well documented that the early years of one's life are the most formative and the most important. They set the scene for how we will function as adults. If we are then set up with patterns that induce stress and make us grow up that little bit too fast - with increased responsibility, especially to others - are we then doomed to an adult life of the same where care of the self is secondary to that of the group? How can we know how to handle stress if we have never known anything else?

In an attempt to make things better for children are we missing the point? Do they really need pressure and stress to start as early as it does?

The competitive nature of education is rooted in the fear that our babes will fall into the abyss of failure if they don't meet the targets and requirements that have been laid down by people well ensconced in a system that still puts achievement on a higher pedestal than happiness and good health.

Are our children rebelling in the only way they can - by putting on weight to act as a buffer to all this pressure and getting ill to try to draw our attention to the fact that this is not the way forward? Where is the time for them to relax and be bored, for it is out of boredom that creativity and the authentic self is allowed to flourish.

We are familiar with the term "comfort eating", which refers to a condition where an individual eats to find solace and personal power - albeit abusive personal power - through eating. Usually, these foods are of the unhealthful kind, the ones that make us feel like we are indulging and being nice to ourselves. This form of self abuse is a sign that we are attempting to cover up uncomfortable emotions by reaching into the fridge and that we are unable to connect with the part of us that naturally wants to self nurture. The increasing disconnection from the self is perhaps now more prevalent in children as they are pushed out in to the world earlier and pressured to put their feelings on hold.

Children, as well as adults, are getting copious amounts of indigestible information on the "good food, bad food" issue which has its merits. Yet maybe we need to be cautious in how we present this information. In addition, in putting more pressure on children to eat right and move enough, we are in danger of transferring our duty of care to minors who, by virtue of their species, seem to require many more years of our nurturing than those of the animal kingdom. To make a child feel bad about eating so called "wrong" foods layers on the guilt and perhaps then the fat. If we, with the emphasis on "we" as parents, choose foods for our families that are closest in nature to their source, there is no bad food - it is food that grows naturally on this planet and is therefore surely safe to eat. All foods in moderation with minimum alteration are what we should be consuming. All this low fat, genetically modified, synthetic, flavour enhanced food (if you can call it that!) has no natural place on this earth and therefore has no place in our bodies. A reverence for nature might do a better job than a food chart constructed from fire and brimstone.

The number of antidepressant drugs prescribed to children has risen to astonishing rates of late, according to a survey recently published on the front page of a Saturday paper. One of the main causes children gave for needing this masking device was that they felt the world was increasingly unsafe. Could it be that the extra weight we carry around is literally a form of protection, a buffer to incidents in our childhood and perhaps a shield from our increasingly violent world?

Many of our children don't walk to school because we feel it unsafe and it actually takes a little longer in our time-poor lives. The world at large is still stuck in waging war and promoting violence as a way of keeping peace and solving problems. How can our children not absorb and react to this energy? They don't feel safe, pushed out into the world earlier, surrounded by an increasingly scary world. Are these layers of fat and lack of desire to go out and play a barrier,a suit of armour, that protects and makes them feel less afraid?

Video games, television and computers have been branded as one reason why children are getting heavier in our modern times and there is no doubt that we exist in an increasingly sedentary society. So many of us give undue worship to these machines and a school is seen as poorly resourced if it does not have an all singing, all dancing IT infrastructure. Is it an addiction to a slovenly way of life through these machines that create numbed out children, or is it a way for children to feel a certain amount of power over something in their increasingly powerless world. By shooting at a target and getting 50,000 something points in a game, are they trying to keep a connection with their decreasing power and voice in the world?

Family dynamics are changing rapidly and, with these changes, come a certain amount of uncertainty and insecurity which, too, can make children feel more vulnerable. While I do not in any way agree that parents should stay together if a relationship is not working, to acknowledge that a child is an inherent part of the relationship is crucial. To allow the child to have a voice during this process may alleviate the need for protection, for it actually means that the child is being allowed self expression, the primary function of the throat chakra that governs the thyroid gland which, in turn, stimulates or subdues the metabolism. In fact, we could probably relate all of our children's issues, be they excess weight, behavioural problems, educational issues, violence or substance abuse, to the constriction o fthe 5th chakra - a stunted and blocked channel of self expression.

To think deeply about some of these possibilities may help us as parents and carers to see fat not as an enemy, but as a messenger from our children.

We need to protect our children from the myth that the intellect and money are more important than love, healthful routines and rituals. We need to concentrate on making this world a safer place for us all to live in by reducing the stresses we face in our modern world, ensuring a safe roof over all of our heads, clean water and chemical-free foods, fresh air and freedom. Most importantly, we need to honour our children by treating them with respect and kindness, and listen to their silent cries for help, for they are essentially our best teachers and tend to make us operate like lionesses - from the heart, with courage and faith.

Nabila Cowasjee

Nabila Cowasjee is a Perth-based writer with a focus on children's health. http://umbilika.com