x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Feast or famine: teenagers struggle in their relationships with food

Feast of famine: teenagers struggle in their relationships with food

With the weather taking a turn for the better and the recent Eid holidays, I have attended in the past few weeks not an insignificant number of barbecues and dinners. This is not necessarily a good thing; after each shindig I walk away feeling contentedly full and blissfully topped up with ice cream. I am also uncomfortably aware that whatever I am wearing has been stretched and no amount of spins in the washing machine, which is so good at shrinking all my socks, will remedy it.

While there are kids like me who tend to bolt down everything in sight, there are others who go overboard with their efforts to whittle themselves down to size zero. Many teens often go on impossibly strict diets because they feel awful about a night out when they overate.

It's sad that dietary diseases such as anorexia and bulimia are still so common after all the awareness raising. Education about diet and nutrition mostly takes the form of science lessons about acid refluxes and the molecular structure of your food intake - a time when the healthy teen is more disposed to messaging someone under their desk or sitting sunk into a glazed-eyed stupor than actually listening.

The caveman in us dictates that we gobble up everything edible we can get our hands on for fear that we may not stumble across any packs of wild boar in the immediate future. I think evolution should have worked out a way of limiting our indulgence when we start putting on the pounds. There was a dinner at my house the other day, and a friend got on to the topic of how she prides herself on always eating minuscule quantities. "That's your fourth spring roll," she tinkled just as I was about to pop a particularly buttery, crispy golden one into my mouth. I hastily retracted it from between my jaws.

I would have felt miserable about her superior self control if I hadn't seen her empty two cans of cola a little later when she thought no one was looking. This was probably a selfish, vindictive, horrible thing to do but I couldn't help emitting a very pleased "Ha!" with a ridiculously wide grin. Needless to say, her raised eyebrows sent me slinking away. Life isn't a competition to see how much less you can survive on, but in a teenage girl's world, it can come frighteningly close to being one.

Sadly, abstinence is often followed by bingeing. One friend has been stuck in a vicious cycle for the past year: she'll have a few months where she completely lays off chocolate or anything with even a hint of sugar or fat in it. She then goes through a period where she raids the kitchen cupboards to satisfy her calorie craving. This, of course, makes her feel incredibly ashamed of herself, so the whole process starts again.

This might be an extreme case but it isn't uncommon. When our school introduced a salad bar in the canteen, I didn't think too many people would be interested, especially when we're presented with steak and chips at the counter right next to it, but it was surprising to see a large number of kids manage to pass their day on nothing but a couple of cherry tomatoes wrapped in lettuce leaves. No doubt, one of these "rabbit food guzzlers", as Uncle Vernon from Harry Potter would call them, would protest that there's also bit of hummus and vinegar sprinkled on top, too. We're told time and again that the celebrities in magazines we emulate have been "touched up" with Photoshop, and that no one should ideally bear resemblance to a squashed stick insect, but I still have friends with BMIs below 14. Salad or juice or vitamin B supplements have their places, but only as an addition, not a substitute for normal food.

The writer is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.