In terms of diet and lifestyle, millennials want to do better than their parents?

Millennials, those who reached adulthood at the beginning of this century, are said to be particularly discerning in their choices, from where and how they like to work to what they shop for and what they eat. But this insistence on always having one’s needs met is sooner or later bound to encounter a reality check, experts warn. In an era of exceedingly high expectations, millennials are already experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, leading all too often to dysfunctional behavior, including towards diet and lifestyle.

Having Grown Up with Great Expectations, Many Young Adults Struggle with Real-Life Obstacles

Millennials came of age when social pressure and stigmatization around physical appearance was already high, says Marissa Lorusso, co-author of “Matter of the Mind, a Look at Millennials and Mental Health,” a large study on this demographic group. They were taught to aspire to perfection and promised great successes if they tried hard enough; and that included how they looked, how much they could weigh, what clothing styles and sizes they had to fit in, and so forth, she says. In a cultural climate that puts such high demands on nearly every aspect of their lives, it is almost a given that unhealthy responses would occur. 

The underlying concern over self-destructive eating and lifestyle habits like anorexia, bulimia and other disorders, of course, is not just physical but also mental health. People react to what they think is expected of them, and if they see themselves as failing and not measuring up to what they are supposed to represent, they likely become disappointed, anxious, depressed, and often enough dysfunctional in their actions.

With food, in particular, we have a relationship that can be positive or negative equal measures. We cannot exist without it, but it can also become the ‘enemy’ if we don’t know how to deal with it in constructive ways.

Much of that is rooted in our upbringing, even early childhood, experts say. According to surveys, eating disorders are becoming ever more widespread among children as young as 13 years of age, mostly in connection with issues of body image. 

For instance, when children and adolescents watch talent- and beauty contest shows on television, they see the candidates as role models and ideals to which they themselves have to live up to, critics suggest. There are reports that even seven and eight year olds have been found to fall into these traps.

Once these mindsets about health, beauty and fitness standards are put in place, they usually stay there long into adulthood. They may lead to other counter-productive behaviors like overeating, binge-eating or yo-yo-dieting, but the relationship to food will likely remain less than whole.

Eating disorders are real, but they are also very complex and not easily understood why and how they develop, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Emotional components are certainly dominant, but those can be of multi-faceted nature.

And they are not limited to image issues affecting women. Peer- and media pressure are also imposed on boys and young men with similar impact on their psyche, says Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian, wellness coach and diabetes expert. Males may be even at greater risk because they tend to be slower in acknowledging problems with their eating behavior, she warns.

Any kind of unhealthful relationship with food, whether it leads to overweight or eating disorders from fear of gaining weight, must be seen as a serious problem and addressed accordingly. It stands to hope that future generations will eventually come to terms with these challenges better than others before them.

TIMI GUSTAFSON is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.”