My daughter is only ten but she’s already obsessing about her weight. She only eats a few bites of food a day. Should I worry about eating disorders?

  • Posted by Dr. Jay Gordon

Eating disorders have become a major problem in American society. We’ve raised our children to obsess about food. Magazines, television programs, and even newspapers blare the message that “you can’t be too thin.” It’s fashionable to be unrealistically skinny. These same magazines and newspapers report on well-known models, actresses, and other celebrities, who have severe problems with anorexia and bulimia. A young girl then turns on the television and sees very thin people selling fattening foods. It’s just not fair!

Since thin is in, fat is the obvious rebellion. Stress is resolved with food. Anger is appeased with food. Sadness is assuaged by food. Unhappiness shows up on the hips in a heartbeat, an easy feat given the typical high-fat, low-fiber diet.

When you’re raising children, you must never emphasize weight. Instead, talk about strength, fun and healthy foods, and strong muscles and sturdy bones. The way to help a child stay at the correct weight is to change her diet to healthier foods and her lifestyle to one that is more active with plenty of outdoor exercise. If you have a seven-year-old who is somewhat overweight, make sure she doesn’t put on any more pounds, and she’ll eventually grow tall enough to fit the weight she’s carrying. Growing children should never lose weight. Instead, they should get taller.

The two most common eating disorders are bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Both are more common in girls because boys are less affected by societal pressure to be thin. Also, boys tend to be more physically active than girls.

Bulimia is the act of bingeing (eating uncontrollably) and then immediately purging (making yourself throw up.) Very quickly, the enamel on the teeth begins to be affected, and, in time, the esophagus can be damaged by repeated exposure to stomach acids. Sometimes you’ll find bite marks on the knuckles because they’ve put their fingers down their throat to gag. Bulimics tend to spend a lot of time in the bathroom right after meals. Eventually, because they’re not getting any nutrients from their food, bulimics become very thin.

If you ask a ten-year-old girl how she sees herself, usually you’ll hear that she’s “too fat.” In our society, many ten-year-olds have already been on self-imposed diets.

When a child develops anorexia nervosa, she stops eating altogether. This means the child doesn’t eat enough to maintain good muscle mass. Because it has no food to digest, the body literally begins eating itself. In a short time, anorexia sufferers become emaciated. They lose the rounded contours of the shoulders. They have no buttocks. Their legs are spindly because the thigh and calf muscles waste away. Their electrolytes go out of balance, and they may stunt their growth and delay puberty. In worst case scenarios, as with singer Karen Carpenter, anorexia can be fatal.

Amazingly, anorexics firmly believe they are carrying too much weight. They will never be thin enough. It becomes impossible to swallow more than a bite or two of food at a meal.

Both these diseases result from attaching too much importance to food, making it a reward or punishment or source of comfort. You should never send a child to bed without dinner as a punishment or give an extra cookie as a reward. This is how you raise a child who grows up thinking that’s what food is all about.

We don’t have to celebrate with food, and we don’t have to deprive ourselves. You shouldn’t deliberately eat less on Tuesday because you ate too much on Monday; you should only eat to satisfy your hunger. You don’t have to clean your plate. You don’t have to miss dessert because you didn’t finish your salad. Instead, teach that food is nothing but fuel. It’s not that important in and of itself. Food’s only purpose is to properly fuel the body and promote good health.