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"Mommy, is this fattening?" my four-year-old son asked as I sat down on the couch beside him with a bowl of popcorn.
Completely shocked, I replied, "No, honey, it's not fattening. And you don't need to worry about that anyway."
As he began to munch on the popcorn and watch his favorite Spiderman cartoon, I wondered to myself, "Why on earth would he ask such a thing? He's four years old, why would he even care?"
But, I already knew why. And, I'm ashamed to say that I'm to blame.
My son has heard me, an overly health conscious person, talk about fattening foods. Apparently, he's been listening more intently than I realized.
As my son continued to watch Spiderman and eat his popcorn, I ironically came across an article in my Parents magazine about the growing number of children suffering from eating disorders. My heart sank as I began to read the article.
"The number of children under 12 who were hospitalized with eating disorders more than doubled between 1999 and 2006, the biggest increase for any age group, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality," the article states.
Shocked? I know I was after reading that, but it only gets worse.
According to the article, doctors are treating children as young as 6 and 7 years old with anorexia and bulimia. And doctors aren't just treating little girls, either. Boys make up 5 to 15 percent of anorexia and bulimia cases, the article states.
First-graders are suffering from anorexia and bulimia, how can that be?
I sat in shock as I continued to read the article, which told the story of a 9-year-old girl named Lily who was barely out of the third grade and was suffering from anorexia. Lily became so thin, in fact, that the once muscular little girl, developed a jutting collarbone, prominent ribs, and a new layer of fine hair on her arms - lanugo, which the body grows as a way to help regulate its temperature. After seeing a pediatrician, a dietitian, and a counselor, Lily's mother had to go to extreme measures to make sure her daughter ate, and ate enough. She was forced to forbid her daughter from leaving the table unless she consumed a set number of calories. Lily's mother's mantra became, "Food is your medicine." She said the first weeks were excruciating. Lily cried constantly and would scream, "You're making me fat!" Her mom had to lock the door during meals to prevent her from running out of the house. "One day, I put a bowl of ice cream in front of her for dessert," Lily's mom said in the article. "Six hours later, Lily downed the last soupy drop."
Today, fortunately, Lily is back at a healthy weight and is doing much better, according to the article. And, while her mother says she hates that her daughter has had to deal with such an adult problem so early in life, she's glad they caught it early. But, like many parents, Lily's mother was facing a dilemma. How do you encourage your children to be healthy without causing them to develop an eating disorder? We don't want our children to have eating disorders, but we don't want them to be overweight either.
My son's comment to me last week about the popcorn being "fattening" has made it very apparent to me that I've been sending him the wrong messages about food. This is a very troubling revelation for me because I suffered from an eating disorder in college and, obviously, still suffer with eating and self-image "issues." But, to think that things I have said around my son could contribute to him having an eating disorder one day is more than unsettling for me.
And, I know I'm not the only one.
How many of you talk about dieting around your children? Do you openly talk about skipping meals so that you can fit into your favorite pair of jeans? Or, have you ever told your child that he or she is getting a little chubby?
We may not realize it at the time, but we could be doing major damage to our children's perception of food, not to mention their perception of themselves and their own body image.
As parents, we must be careful not to cause our children to think food is bad or food is the enemy. We need to encourage healthy behaviors, but we also need to let our children be kids, and that means letting them have treats. Sweets are ok in moderation. And, as I say that, I also have to be honest with myself and admit that I still have a hard time convincing myself of some of these things. As parents, we can't be hypocrites. If we have issues with food or our own body image, we must face those issues and deal with them. If not, we aren't being very good role models for our children.
From this point forward, I plan to be much more cautious about what I say and how I discuss food with my son. I want my 4-year-old son to enjoy his movie and popcorn without having to worry about it being "fattening."
Simply put, I want my kid to enjoy being a kid.
Editor's note" To read the full article in the Parents magazine, go to http://www.parents.com/kids/eating-disorders/help-children-with-eating-d....