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Eating Disorders in Children

If I had a dollar for every time I persuaded a girl of 8 or 9 that they were not, in fact, fat, I'd be considerably richer. When my older daughter was about that age, their mothers were putting a lot of her friends on diets. It drove me absolutely crazy to see these poor little girls, worrying about their "tummies" or "fat" that wasn't even evident, except to a mother who was hoping for a super model-skinny pre-pubescent child, which is ridiculous. When they were at my house, they ate well, I wouldn't allow them to drink or eat anything diet and I encouraged them to eat healthy food that would strengthen their bodies and bones. I also tried to assure them that they were not fat; that they would grow into their bodies and they were absolutely beautiful just the way they were. With that came some nutritional education about eating a healthy combination of foods that would not make them fat, but strong and naturally slender.

Parents, at around age 8 and 9, children can be short and plump. Once they gain height, their bodies balance out and grow longer, thus eliminating the storage of "baby fat" all in one or two places. If you are in doubt, please consult your child's pediatrician and whatever you do, don't even think about saying the word "fat" when talking to and about your child.

Using food as a reward or punishment is equally damaging and can lead to eating disorders that swing either toward over-eating or under-eating. Think about what you are saying to your child when you either withhold food as punishment or offer unhealthy food as a reward.

I see these same kids who were labeled "fat" and fed diet foods and drinks at very early ages, now in their mid-teens. Most of them are svelte and downright skinny. Unfortunately, quite a few of them are skinny by indulging in horrible habits, such as starving themselves or inducing vomiting after every meal. These kids, girls mostly, are so obsessed with being "skinny" they'll do anything to shed pounds or not put any on. Most of them survive on diet soda, which scares me more than obesity. Diet soda contains artificial sweeteners, which are extremely toxic and are now known to cause many potentially deadly ailments, especially after having been consumed for years.

Eating disorders are almost as common as acne in teenagers today. These can create many health problems, not the least of which is potential death. Try telling a 15 year-old girl that she is not fat after her mother or both parents have been urging her to diet from the time she was old enough to dress herself.

Bulimia, which is the act of inducing vomiting after eating to maintain one's size or to lose weight, creates horrible health problems of it's own, including rapidly deteriorating teeth because the stomach acids retched up on a daily basis destroy tooth enamel faster than sugar ever could. We know children who are fainting and breaking limbs as a result of undernourishment, children who have developed severe tooth decay from bouts of bulimia and children who's self-esteem is so damaged that no matter how much weight they manage to drop, they still see themselves as fat and unattractive. These are not even just "average" looking kids. Most of these children are amazingly beautiful specimens of humankind. Go figure ?

Another potentially harmful age to mention the "fat" word is right before or when puberty hits. Girl's bodies will change, apparently overnight and the slender little child you held in your arms a month ago will have developed budding breasts and a rounder behind. This can be startling and you might assume your little girl is getting fat. I assure you, she is not. She is merely developing and maturing naturally. This would be a good time to have a talk with your daughter about menstruation, as it is right around the corner and she will be much better served if she is prepared and aware of what to expect.

If you are concerned that your child is indeed overweight, talk to the pediatrician and try to insure that your child eats a healthy, well-balanced diet. Children will naturally eat bread, chips, cakes, cookies, ice cream and drink soda if left to their own devices when hunger or thirst strikes. All of these will pack on unnecessary pounds and should be minimally incorporated into a healthy diet consisting of protein, lots of fresh vegetables, fruit and purified drinking water. Soda is something I do not offer my children and is a major contributor to many people being overweight. The amount of sugar in one can of soda rivals that of a good-sized candy bar. It is not healthy for anyone. Diet soda, in my opinion, is even more detrimental.

Eating disorders are dangerous and should be taken seriously, whether your child is trying to loose pounds unnecessarily or needs to actually loose weight for health concerns. Always maintain a dialogue with your child's pediatrician and discuss any and all concerns with the doctor on the telephone, before your child is within earshot in the examining room with you.

Children will take any remark we make about their bodies seriously and as parents, we should strive to fortify healthy self acceptance in our kids. If your child does, indeed, have a weight problem, help him understand the value of good nutrition and exercise. Help her understand that she is beautiful and that a healthy body is a perfect body, no matter what shape or size. If you are a parent struggling with a weight issue, please do not project your anxiety onto your child and be careful to monitor your children's eating and exercise habits while also watching for any signs of an eating disorder, which could manifest as a compulsion with weight loss or an obsession with unhealthy snacking. Be gentle and non-alarming if you feel it's necessary to restrict your child's consumption of junk food. Teaching children to fear their food is not any healthier than allowing them open reign in the junk food aisle of the market. Moderation is always key in healthy eating habits and if learned early, will serve them well all their lives.

C) Rexanne Mancini - 2005

 

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