the only thing we need to lose is our obsession with thinness

Image: yoga after climbing, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from lululemonathletica's photostream

I spend a lot of time reading feministy, body-positive, Healthy at Every Size type blogs, so at first I wasn’t surprised to read a piece called Never Take Fitness Advice from the New York Times. Until I realized it was written by a man, and on Gawker to boot.  Yay for encountering body-positive messages in unlikely spaces, particularly considering the staggering number of negative messages we get about our bodies each and every day!

In this piece, Hamilton Nolan critiques a recent NYT article called “Does Working Out Really Help You Lose Weight?,” particularly its assumption that the goal of exercise, and indeed all of life, is being “thin,” a word that is used repeatedly in the NYT’s article. Hamilton writes:

Being thin is an awful goal towards which to strive. It is certainly not the goal of an exercise program. Writing an entire, ostensibly meaningful and important story on whether exercise can make you thin is analogous to wondering whether going to college can get you laid. Yes, but that’s not really the point.

The purpose of working out is get in shape. Not to get “thin.” To be in shape, for the average person, connotes being healthy, and improving on the basic elements of one’s own fitness: muscular strength, endurance, cardiovascular, flexibility, etc.

Amen! The goal of working out, and even of eating healthy foods, is to be HEALTHY, which may or may not mean being thin. In fact, for many people, it will not mean being thin. And being thin does not necessarily mean being healthy, either. I should know. I’m what the NYT might call “thin,” with a BMI* naturally in the “underweight” range of the scale, and yet I am still what you might call “out of shape.” I couldn’t run a mile if you asked me to. I have a rather high resting heart rate. But I recently started exercising regularly for the first time in my life, by taking yoga classes, and I am feeling stronger and healthier and happier the more I practice yoga.

Not to mention, thinness is a crappy way to motivate people to pursue healthy activities. I eat healthy food because it tastes good. I practice yoga because it’s fun, it helps with my back pain, and it makes me feel beautiful just to be in my body. I even hear tell that some people like to run because they think it’s fun, though I think it sounds like torture! Do what makes you feel good and healthy.  Do what’s fun. It may or may not make you thin, and who really cares anyway?

*As an aside on the BMI: a lot of those feministy body-positive Healthy at Every Size blogs I read like to talk smack on the BMI. While they have a point that having a certain BMI does not necessarily mean one is by definition unhealthy, ie, just because one falls in the “obese” or “underweight” category according to the BMI does not mean one will have all of the health complications associated with that category, the BMI is still useful as a measure of predicting risk and determining if further testing is necessary. For example, according to my BMI, I might be at risk for infertility, osteoporosis, and anemia. Because of this, my doctors might suggest testing or monitoring to see if I have developed those issues, but it doesn’t mean I have to HAVE those issues– in fact, I don’t. The same goes for people who are obese according to the BMI– they are at risk for diabetes and other complications, and may require testing or monitoring, but will not necessarily have those conditions.

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77 thoughts on “the only thing we need to lose is our obsession with thinness

  1. hooray for yoga! it is amazing how much it transforms your mind, body and spirit. keep it up! and kudos for writing about health for health’s sake, not to fit into the image that we feel we need to fulfill. thank you!

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  2. I started working out last summer and am enjoying the cardio results – being able to do things without half collapsing, like the line dance class at the fitness club last night. So I buy in to part of your advice; it’s good for people who are basically ‘average’ and out of shape.

    But when you weigh as much as I do (and I’m not comfortable with numbers, but let’s just say I really need to be half the woman I am now), losing weight is part of the process too.

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  3. This is an absolutely fabulous comment on the focus of being healthy as opposed to being thin. If you utilize that mindset you will feel better all around and that is what matters the most.

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  4. I totally agree with your post! I wonder how long it takes for the society to accept that people come in all shapes and sizes… !!! And you can be totally healthy even if you are not rail thin! Also, thinness does not necessarily mean that you are successful and healthy! (as seems to be the impression largely people hold)…..

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  5. You might be surprised to hear this, but a lot of men who are perfectly chiseled have just as many problems with their self-image.

    We as people simply need to be patient with ourselves and others.

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  6. Truly agree. I think you have to find YOUR own perfect size/fit and that will make you happy. If you just strive to be “skinny”, you will never get skinny enough to be happy…and then we all know where that leads. Just eat healthy, workout, and love yourself! You only have one life!

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  7. Have you heard of ‘Baba Ramdev’. he has revolutionised Yoga in India. He has introduced ‘Pranayama’ in a big way. It is so nice and so effective – Not just to look good but works a lot internally as well.

    Try to watch his techniques on the net and try to practice it. You will love it.

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  8. I had the identical response to NYT article…..”so we shouldn’t exercise because it doesn’t seem to be making us thin…” What the f@#&??? The whole premise was stupid. I own a spin/fitness studio and customers often ask “will this help me lose weight?”. My answer is: Maybe. That depends on a lot of other things…..but I will tell you that you will have more energy, get sick less, feel less stress and generally be happier. Are you interested in those outcomes as well?

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  9. While I’d like to be slimmer, it’s the physical health aspects I need to improve on. I’m really unfit. I’m glad to see others see a problem with the cult of thin, though. Thin isn’t the definition of healthy. Just look at Lindsay Lohan.

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    • I always welcome people referring to, taking issue with, or commenting about what I write on other blogs, so long as attribution and a link back to my original post are provided.

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  10. I am naturally thin, and I have experienced a lot of hostility from others because of this.

    While I do agree the goal of excercise and nutritious eating habits is to maintain good health, the fact remains that obesity in the U.S. is an alarming trend, particularly among children. Just because some people do not have a naturally thin build does not excuse obesity.

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    • Silkyvelvet, perhaps the hostility is not toward your thinness but your judgmental attitude toward those of other body types. The entire point of the latter part of my post was that obesity does not automatically mean unhealthy. Obesity, in and of itself, is not a negative thing that needs “excusing” any more than being underweight is automatically unhealthy. Even trained medical professionals cannot gauge health by merely looking at people, so I highly doubt you can tell whether those obese people you feel need “excusing” are unhealthy just by looking at them either.

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  11. Lean bodybuilders have a high BMI; it takes no account of body-composition (ratio of fat to muscle), which is arguably a better health & fitness predictor. From what I have read online, it seems that the jury is still out on very fat, very athletic people such as sumo-wrestlers.

    I ran a lot in the past but it aggravated a minor pre-existing knee condition – I think that people should take a serious look at replacing frequent long-distance running with something less frequent or low-impact.

    I recently wrote about my own struggles to find any intelligent consensus on exercise:

    http://thedailyg.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/the-simple-short-free-universal-workout/

    I believe I have distilled a sort of basic, universal workout that has the best cost-benefit ratio in terms of maximum results for minimum time and money, with minimal injury-risk. Three well-chosen exercises alone, performed once per week, can condition the vast majority of your physique and will meet the needs of non-athletes. And assist some athletes who want strength-gains without throwing much time into it.

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  12. I think that more than seeing BMI as useful in and of itself in terms of correlation to health problems, doctors are better off keeping track of their patents’ family histories and any instances of sudden weight loss or gain, which are more indicative of potential health risks than weight/BMI alone.

    And thank you for your response to silkyvelvet. I don’t need anyone to excuse my weight or appearance. I take care of myself; my doctor is quite satisfied with my health, and it’s no one else’s business. Besides, obesity is not nearly the crisis it is made out to be in the media. In fact, rates have been fairly steady for close to 10 years.

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  13. Pingback: First Stop: Gloom City « Slow and Steady

  14. Amen and congrats on creeping onto the wordpress front page. It’s depressing to think of the modern day pressures placed on young people (in particular) to conform to a certain body-image. Self-fulfillment should always be the goal, not conforming to corporate imagery. Keep up the sensible work. Following a similar vein, you might find my despair at America’s Next Top Model of moderate amusement. Cheers http://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/

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  15. Hi Sarah,

    Great blog! I love your message!

    My friend, Angela, and I started http://www.plussizemodelsunite.com a few weeks ago. We are a new blog, but we have already reached over 15,000 viewers. Plus-Size Models Unite is an on-line community where all woman of any size, shape, and age can share their personal stories; exchange ideas; discuss healthy body image, self-esteem, confidence, fashion, beauty, health, and a plethora of other topics.

    Plus-Size Models Unite embraces women of every shape, size, ethnicity, and age, which includes women who are short, tall, plus, thin, and every woman in between. We applaud diversity and support women to find the inner strength to accept, respect, and embrace their uniquely beautiful self. We encourage self-empowerment and confidence.

    We hope you will look at our site and let us know what you think.

    Thank you!
    Elizabeth

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  16. Thank you for writing this! There are many people, myself included, who will never be thin. There needs to be less emphasis on the word “thin” and more on the word “healthy”. I think the word “thin” is going to join “normal” in my list of words I hate and never use.

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    • Remain.Simple: I don’t think you read my post. The point of it was to be happy and healthy regardless of where you fall on the BMI scale. Even if you never budge on the BMI scale. Even if others think your body is “unacceptable.”

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  17. You mention exercise is for getting toned and in shape and not for the sole purpose of getting thiner. I agree. We should “work out” in any way we see fit and try to enjoy the activity. I always love my yoga time. I can understand people wanting to get two for one…exercise/get thiner. We have so little time nowadays in order to get done all we need to do. I used to be able to eat all and everything and not gain an ounce. Really. Until I was of a certain age and then the sorts of foods i ate determined whether i gained weight or not. Now I exercise with the idea of keeping fit and if I can lose a pound or two I’m happy. Thanks for a well tought out piece.

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  18. My cliche advice is usually “Exercise for health. Eat for weight loss.” No amount of exercise can fix a bad diet, if weight loss (or heck, weight gain) is what you’re after. I’ll never be a size 2 (or probably a size 6), but I’m a fairly fit and healthy individual because I exercise nearly every day.

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  19. Health has a lot more to do with one’s quality of nutrition and exercise than with BMI or even body-composition (i.e. skin-fold measurements).

    Fat wrestlers, shot-putters and strongmen have better health outcomes than fat junk-guzzling couch-potatoes, and skinny dancers and distance-runners have better health outcomes than skinny runway models who live on cigs, sandwiches and Evian.

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  20. I think the “thin” focus also makes people wish to be exactly that, and not focus on the what you can actually do to improve your health (and thus lose weight/tone your body). I’m not in super shape, but I work out on a regular basis, guess I’m what you call naturally thin, but am not the stage anymore where you say “I can eat whatever I want and not gain weight”. So I exercise in ways that I enjoy, like dancing and swimming.

    I work out to stay healthy and keep my body in a shape that I’m comfortable with. By the way, yesterday I went to my first Ashtanga yoga class, so today my body’s aching. Can’t get that breathing right either, but I guess it will work with practice!

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  21. My response to erniebufflo:

    I don’t display any judgmental attitude towards people who are overweight; in fact, I’m very compassionate, which is why I have concern over obesity, which does indeed contribute to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, and Type 2 diabetes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obesity: “Obesity is one of the leading preventable causes of death worldwide.”

    Why eat yourself into an early grave?

    And here: http://www.novafeel.com/nutrition/obesity.htm: “Avariety of mental health problems can lead to obesity especially incorrect eating habits such as binge-eating or depression which usually involve an excessive diet rich in calories (“eating for comfort”, “comfort food”).”

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    • Obesity CAN cause those things. It doesn’t mean it always DOES. Just like I said– I’m underweight and at risk for a whole host of health problems I don’t actually have. There are overweight, obese, and even morbidly obese people who have NONE of the health problems you listed.

      But you’ve made your biases quite clear with your ‘Why eat yourself into an early grave?” comment. You’re arguing against points I never made.

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  22. I completely agree with you, people’s focus should be how they feel rather than how they look! So what if your co-worker is “thinner” than you? I rather have a healthier body (and mind for that matter).

    Great picture btw :)

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  23. I read that article and got very disheartened. I started an excersize regimen and saw a total of zero results, even when eating under 1,500 calories a day (as recommended by a diet website…)

    Then I realized that I was hungry. And I could still walk and run and be hungry and eat and maintain my weight the way I am. Don’t I have a significant other? Don’t I think I’m hot anyway?

    Well yes. And that article sort of changed my mind, in a way, from being discouraged to thinking that excersize, even if it doesn’t make me Kate Moss-thin, is still healthy.

    Thanks for your commentary, too. We all need a little wake-up call sometimes.

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  24. Great article, I love the positive vibes and upbeat attitude. Far more often than I’d like when reading about this topic, I get the feeling that I should be enraged and attacking people (from verbal sparring to outright terrorism) instead of taking responsibility for my own actions. I know several women in my family who have struggled with body image, fitness, and mental health, etc, and your article brightened my day.

    However, I disagree with you about BMI. It’s a very inaccurate, outdated tool that should be phased out. I have considered writing to the medical associations about this. My mother and I have both studied the BMI system, and being untrained in medicine, but having plenty of common sense, we both think that it’s a bunch of crock that the Body Mass Index is such a widely accepted system.

    Perhaps it’s better than no system at all, but I don’t think that’s an excuse for it’s general inaccuracy.

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  25. My personal opinion is this: Most people are not obsessed with being thin, they are obsessed with not being fat or appearing fat. There is a difference. At this very second I hear two of my my MALE colleagues asking each other how much they weigh and how much do they eat and both are in great shape. Are they obsessed with being thin? No. Are they concerned about not becoming fat or out of shape? Yes. Now what you view as “in shape” is your business. I know that I exercise regularly to be healthy and in great shape and look great according to MY standards of what that means.

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  26. Pingback: Dieting, Crash diets, health « The Meandering Wanderer

  27. While I agree that the Times article should not have focused on thinness as the sole result of exercise, I have to admit that I did learn some surprising information.

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  28. This is a refreshing take on the “thinness” issue. Thank you for sharing the info. These are things I’ve personally believed all along…but it is hard to convince people that healthy does not always equal thin and thin does not always equal healthy when we’ve been conditioned to believe that for so long!
    Great post!

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  29. Great post! Thank you! My current forms of exercise are riding my bike with my ten-year-old daughter and walking (the dogs, to shops, to library etc etc).

    I’ve recently had a young friend battle anorexia and have to say, the marketing emphasis on thin over healthy, did not help her to feel either beautiful or valued. It’s hard for young girls these days as the media use of thin and healthy as synonyms is misleading them from a very early age.

    When I was her age, I was much more concerned with what I would become than how I would like when I became it. I played sport as a means of hanging out with my friends. I am mortified that we’ve let our girls become so mislead regarding what’s important and what’s not.

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  30. great post! your blog was a nice find on the front page of wordpress! i agree about health for health sake but i really wanted to share a smile about the joy of yoga! indeed a gift to life. a study in becoming aware, strength, grace, love, and giving back. btw… a cup cake shop all the way!

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  31. Thank you for your wonderful blog. I have been heavy for a decade now. but now finally I am more interested in being healthy first and then a low size!
    since I more or less enjoy exercise I am adding eating raw veges into my diet.

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  32. Great putting the focus back where it belongs, on our health!

    As a Health Coach, I am always bringing the focus back to the real priorities for my clients…what makes you strong and happy in your life?

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  33. Thank you for your thoughtful piece! I was working on my own tale about weight and obsession with thinness as well. Have you noticed how many Facebook status updates have to do with dieting, weight and exercise? I’m so tired of hearing it. Anyway, thank you!

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  34. Absolutely brilliant article! Sarah you have indeed hit the target because the society that we live in today (or the one that I am in) considers ‘thin’ to be beautiful and great when in fact it could be unhealthy and dangerous. Losing weight should be a goal no doubt but it should be about being healthy and having a healthier and active life. I have personally been through a time where wanting to be thin was my primary goal. And yes I lost weight but luckily I had advice from friends that being thin is not important, its’ being healthy that should be my priority. That advice still lives with me to this day.

    Once we learn to love ourselves and our bodies, miracles happen. Everything changes for the best :D

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  35. I enjoyed your article. When we focus on eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle instead of counting pounds we are more likely to maintain a balanced weight. I have a new blog http://www.truepotentialcounseling.wordpress.com that offers free tools and resources on living a holistically healthy lifestyle. Topics include mindfulness, powerful self-talk, self-esteem, honesty, confidence, healthy eating and a myriad of other topics.

    I hope you will look at our site and let me know what you think.

    Thank you!

    Andrea

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  36. What a fantastic post. I came across you blog by accident but glad I did. As a 30 yr old man living in the UK. I have been conscious of my physical image for years and have been trying to become “thin”, the conventual view of male thin. I had the mind set of needing to lose weight, become thin, get fitter. I have failed for a decade and only ended up putting on more weight.

    2 months ago I met a guy who change my mindset from losing weight to getting healthy. When I changed my mindset I started looking at the types of food I was eating and quantities. I made changes and am now eating fresh food and home cooked meals. My exercise has changed too and I am only exercising for recreation not to lose weight. This means I have started enjoying it again and stuck at it instead of burning myself out. Result, 2 months 1 stone 4 lbs lost without going to the gym 5 times a week or eating small amounts of food. I am eat good healthy natural foods, good square meals, I exercise for fun, and most importantly, I am loving eating, food and exercises instead of feeling guilty and hating my image.

    The best definition I have found for Health is “free from illness and injury”.

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  37. Amen! :D

    I run because it makes me happy, not to make me thin. I find that I run better when I weigh a little more than when I’m not running anyways…go figure!

    I wish everyone could view exercise in the light that you just portrayed it in. :D

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  38. One of our guidelines for http://www.looklovely.net is that we never write about diets or weight loss. Our philosophy is that trying to be in the best health possible is a core part of looking lovely – which is not the same thing as trying to be ask thin as possible. Sadly this does not to be a very common point of view, and every day I read things that seem to be aimed at women who are over a (say) size 10 – or smaller!

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  39. In response to saleblan’s comment.

    “I run because it makes me happy, not to make me thin”. I love that To me it is the only reason to do anything. I used to run to make me thin, it didn’t, i’ve stopped for a bit because I didn’t like the impact on my joints whilst carrying 3 stone of excess fat.

    I love the lines in the film “Forest Gump”, for me this is the only reason to run. I quote:-

    “That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run……”

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  40. Pingback: Check this out! « Julies Real Kitchen

  41. Our culture is set up to allow people to feel entitled to comment on body types outside the ‘norm.’ What would happen if that sort of awareness disappeared? What would the world be like if we shifted that awareness and focus to another area and just lost the hyperawareness of how the people around us look?

    Just a suggestion for contemplation.

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    • GeorgiaTeacher: the presumption some people have that they have a right to talk about other people’s bodies absolutely gobsmacks me. I could launch into a whole discourse about how this stems from the idea that womens’ bodies are objects for public consumption and comment!

      Like

  42. I recently wrote a not-as-good-as-yours blog entry about a similar topic. I get fed up with the inundation of what I ‘should be’ in terms of weight and size.

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  43. So much so say and yet having a difficult time putting it together… I just woke up.

    A long time ago I met a personal trainer that introduced me to the idea of fitness for health’s sake rather than thinness. Revolutionary!

    This concept changed the way I felt about my body and my workouts dramatically. It also made my day-to-day life much happier because my happiness was no longer tied to a number on the scale.

    Yoga has changed my life as well. Love it.

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  44. Pingback: Big Girls Don’t Cry … « Way off the grid

  45. Pingback: Pollyanna Says “CAKE for all!” « Pollyanna Rainbow Sunshine and the Needles of Doom

  46. Refreshing perspective. I am battling the bulge but would be happy to lose a few pounds in the process.
    Thanks for a fab post and making me re-orientate my goals about working out and healthy eating. It’s a new mindset!
    Have a great day.

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  47. Pingback: Wednesday Weigh-In « Hating ED

  48. That’s a Great post as always, it is great to have the chance to read a good quality article and Interesting topic with many great points.

    I wanted to say thank you for taking time to share this information.

    Like

  49. “Not to mention, thinness is a crappy way to motivate people to pursue healthy activities. …Do what’s fun.”

    Exactly! Great blog (and not just because you linked to my piece on Jezebel:) I really like seeing people of every size talking about health at every size, and your tales from the bus are hilarious. I also adore the picture of you at the top of the blog – it’s just fabulous! Consider me a new subscriber :)

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  50. I found your site from the WordPress.com page which has several sites that are strong enough to make the page. Your site is wonderful and beautiful..
    Thanks..

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  51. Childhood (1-12 years) is a very important period as the foundation for later adult. Therefore, the adequacy of nutrition in childhood is important to note, for determining later adult life.

    Critical elements that must be available in the food for your children:
    1. Carbohydrates as an energy source.
    2. Protein for growth, recovery after illness, hormonal function, overcome digestive disorders.
    3. Vitamins and minerals for endurance.

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