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A Word about the "Food Police": Toward a New Vocabulary in Eating Disorders Recovery

Posted Apr 02 2009 5:59pm

Every now and again in eating disorders work, we need to expand our vocabularies. Sometimes, patients come to appointments with new terms that we need to have defined for us, such as "sham eating", "thinspiration", and "Ana Boot camp".

In addition, as health-care professionals, we need to stay abreast of new findings that may expand or alter our eating disorders terminology. The shift in the use of "Binge Eating Disorder" rather than "compulsive overeating" is a good example in this category; the change from "morbidly obese" to "clinically significant obesity" is another.

Sometimes, we need to get rid of certain phrases altogether, when we find that they are confusing, out dated, misapplied, or otherwise not helpful. "Bulimarexia", and "manorexic", for example.

In the later category, I have a suggestion, and that is that we discontinue the use of the term "the food police", and especially when talking with parents about their children's eating behaviors. And here's why...

First, it is confusing to parents. We have all read the books about good nutrition that warn parents to "police" their children's food consumption,e.g., "Make sure they are only eating healthy foods, and not junk foods." Yet at the same time, eating disorders professionals often tell the parents of their child-aged clients not to do so. I know I have. I have told parents not to police the kinds of foods their children eat, but to allow children to eat when they are hungry, and to eat what they are hungry for, as long as the child is getting sufficient nutrition. (In fact, I use the term in this vein in one sentence of my book). " Policing" a child to not eat junk food may, in fact, lead to a worsening of a child's eating disorders symptoms.

Second, it has come to my recent attention that the term "food police" has a different connotation in some eating disorders recovery movements, a connotation of which I had been unaware....

...Spotlight on the Family-Based Treatment of Eating Disorders: (see Treatment Notes dated July 21, 2008 and July 16, 2008)...Recall that Family-Based Treatment, elsewhere referred to as "Maudsley Therapy", involves the parents as key components of child and adolescent eating disorders recovery. Studies show that weight restoration, resumption of normal eating and full eating disorders recovery can be accomplished successfully using this treatment method.

In the beginning stages of Maudsley therapy, parents take an active role in the re-feeding of their child, sometimes at the boisterous and adamant opposition of the child. Yet it is a necessary step toward their child's recovery, re-feeding by parents who just want their eating disordered children to live, and to live free of an eating disorder.

Sadly, parents have sometimes been cast as the "bad guys" for "policing" their child's food intake in this manner, or for monitoring purging symptoms, and watching out for signs of self-starvation (even by some healthcare professionals). Yet many of these parents are face the challenge of their lifetimes in helping to re-feed their child, and they need all the support they can get.

The truth is, being the "food police" is not a bad thing, when what you are "policing" is that your child has sufficient food intake to stay alive and become healthy. Still, however, a negative connotation surrounds the term, and as I have recently discovered, this misnomer has led many parents to feel guilty, conflicted, and even vilified for their efforts, all the while that they are in the fight of their, and their child's, life.

So here's a thought: let's show our support for these families, and for our patients, by getting rid of the term "food police" altogether - It's confusing, it is demeaning to parents, it contradicts what research shows about Maudsley therapy, and it is just plain not helpful.

I guess you could say that I am voluntarily "policing" myself into a more healthy, and more helpful, vocabulary for eating disorders recovery.

Care to join me?

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