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Obesity or an Eating Disorder: Which Is Worse?

I fear that I’m giving my daughter an eating disorder with intentions of teaching her how to eat right. Which begs the question: which is more harmful — obesity (and diabetes) or an eating disorder?

I’ve implemented a “one-treat rule” in our home, which simply means that if my kids get ice-cream after school, they have already had their treat and don’t get dessert after dinner. I try to explain as delicately as I can that too many sweets and too much junk food makes you sick. Fat too, yes. But, more importantly, sick.

“What happens when you eat more than one treat?” my daughter asked me awhile back. And, well, I’m not proud of this, but I think I said, while my mind was somewhere else: “You blow up.”

So yesterday she had a snow cone at the pool. That was supposed to be her treat for the day. But when we went to a lacrosse party later that day, a fellow mom trained at Le Cordon Bleu made these amazing cupcakes with the team’s logo designed with butter cream icing. Katherine instinctively grabbed one, but then ran to me, asking, “Will I blow up if I eat this?”

16 Comments to
Obesity or an Eating Disorder: Which Is Worse?

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  1. The question should not be, “Which is worse?” It should be, “How can I help my kids avoid both?”

    My opinion is, people can’t miss what they never had. Sweets, fast food, television, and other addictive junk should be avoided during critical periods of brain development and remodeling. If they can be avoided until after executive brain functions have fully developed, I’d expect lifetime risk of addiction to drop to nearly zero.

    If people are serious about this so-called “obesity epidemic”, they should treat it like they would something like smoking. Is one cigarette a day acceptable? I’d prefer a zero-tolerance policy with broad exception for fruits and vegetables. I rarely had foods containing refined sugar as a child and adolescent. Now “avoiding sweets” requires zero effort. I feel no guilt if I do eat something sweet. I simply have a distaste for them.

    If you explain as much as you can, as accurately as you can (at an age-appropriate level), I doubt you’d promote mental illness. The problem with the “blow up” response is that it can be considered a flat-out lie. At best, it’s an exaggerated reference to obesity. I would want to explain why I gave the exaggerated response (busy concentrating on something else, didn’t think it through clearly, thought it was funny), and try to replace it with accurate information.

  2. Disordered eating, whether it’s over-eating that leads to obesity or under-consumption of calories or lose weight (anorexia & bulimia), are both issues of control.

    So why start your children off with control coming from you if that’s not what you ultimately desire for them to have in their heads?

    Normal eating is characterized by eating what, when and how much one’s body needs. The best way children can learn this is by modeling after you (which they’re designed to do) and following their own instincts, palates, and bodily cues, not by you enforcing what they do and don’t need. They can learn naturally, in their own good time, that watermelon on a hot day is refreshing and thick icing makes you feel a little queasy- and it will mean a lot more coming from their personal experience than from the instruction of a parent. After all, many who suffer from disordered eating as adults had parents who strictly withheld refined sugar, insisted on clean plates, or took any number of control measures in relation to their children’s food consumption.

    In our house, we model healthy eating. What I choose to keep in the fridge and on the pantry shelves is nutritious enough that I don’t have to worry too much about the choices my kids make- and guess what? They make good ones! My daughter’s been munching on broccoli all morning (of her own whim), but I’ll bet you anything that she’ll have a slice of birthday cake at our family party later tonight without the slightest guilt. She likely won’t have 5 slices of cake because she knows from experience that that doesn’t feel very nice in her tummy. When she’s with her friends, or out celebrating, I don’t issue decrees regarding food or try to control her choices. In doing so, I not only show reverence and respect to her ability to listen to her own body, I also send the message that food has more purposes than body control- it is social, it can be enjoyed for pleasure and it is fun to make. This is emotionally healthy- whereas secretively using food as comfort because you felt it was denied from you, or feeling so desperate to achieve a certain look that you deny your body the fuel it needs, is not. Which kid is more likely to start habits of stashing food secretly or becoming obsessed with what they put in their mouth? The one with their mother’s voice in their head, or the one who was respected and trusted to listen to their own body and care for it appropriately?

    We discuss as a family what effects certain foods have on the body, and my children understand why we like some foods best- they are delicious, they give us energy, and they are natural.

  3. Also, I agree with the “flat-out lie” bit Daniel contributed. That’s never helpful with children, and destroys their trust in you. Better to be honest, if you’re uncomfortable with how the truth might effect them. So what if they figure out that your attempts to control them have no serious consequences in reality? They’ve beat you at your own misguided game! Two treats in one day won’t kill them- and they deserve to know that! The real truth about food and what a healthy relationship to it looks like will set them free- not the version of it you’re constructing to manipulate their choices.

  4. When I was a kid my parents let me eat anything I wanted. I was always a thin child and quite gangly through my teenage years; it was in the late teens that I developed anorexia which was not about food whatsoever. My point is that your children may be at greater risk from the fact that you’ve experienced an eating disorder, but that doesn’t mean that every decision you make for them now will necessarily foster an eating disorder in one of them.

    I worry, though, about your attitude towards food – because your kids will pick up cues from you. Don’t make food the enemy. Love food and what it means, and remember that our bodies are just vehicles for living. That’s what is ultimately important, not whether your body meets your standards.

  5. I workout about 10 hours a week, count every calorie most days, take two drugs with appetite suppression as a side effect, drink lots of water, eat fruits and veggies everyday, have good blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. I’ve been this way for quite some time now….

    I am also obese. (although losing weight). I hate when people knock on the obese when it’s really not all that bad to be overweight or SLIGHTLY obese. According to many studies, we actually live longer than normal weight people. For example, I know that my eating habits aren’t prefect (some days are bad), but I feel like I am much more health-conscious and active than all my normal weight friends. I just am hungry 2 hours after each meal and have to work VERY VERY hard to not overeat. Everyone in my family is big, although most are very healthy. Your body type is also genetic as well. Some people are just built bigger.

    So anyway, obesity is in no way comparable to an eating disorder, unless you are only talking about severe, bed-ridden obese people. The more important thing is that she exercises, has a good (but realistic) body image and eats wholesome, food that’s as close to nature as possible.

  6. Sorry Daniel, but you are wrong, wrong, wrong. My mother believed that myth as well, and she never gave me an ounce of junk food. All of our ‘sweets’ were homebaked with extra wheat germ and the only time I ate anything unhealthy was when I was at other kids’ houses.

    What did this accomplish? It created a pattern of binging while at my friends’ houses. I would scarf up every ounce of sugar-laden food I could find. If I was at a birthday party, I’d eat as much cake as I was allowed, and would usually sneak more.

    And what did this result in? Almost 20 years of bulimia and depression and exercise addiction. If you have never been bulimic, you have no idea how much pain (physical and emotional) it causes and how destructive it is.

    Moderation is the key to anything in life. Even though I have been healed of bulimia for the last few years, if I even try to ‘diet’ or set some crazy rule about what I eat, I instantly go back to that old deprivation mentality and start crazing what I’m not ‘allowing’ myself to have.

    Now, I eat what I like in moderation. I eat cake and candy and pizza when I like. I also eat veggies and lean protein when I like. I am far thinner now than when I was bulimic, and I am much healthier and happier.

    Passing on food obsession to children is like putting a curse on them for life. Don’t do it. Please.

  7. I agree. My parents were like “food-nazis.” All that caused me was to eat a lot of sweets when they become available at school or at friends’ houses. Or I would secretly purchase it and covertly eat it late at night. And then when I went to college, oh boy. All that cake! Ice cream All the time! Pizza! I gained like 40lbs my first year. Better to have some junk food available, but mostly have healthy food (that people like) in your house.

  8. Although it’s important for parents to model correct behavior, it’s not enough. Kids don’t always learn the implicit lessons that adults intend. Explicit (age-appropriate, accurate) instruction is needed. However, my observations do indicate that a lot of unhealthy habits are learned from parents. The author of this blog entry seems to provide her children with daily sweets. And I’ve seen parents take healthy food away from their kids to be replaced with deep-fried junk.

    “Zero tolerance” does not mean become a “food nazi”. The greatest advantage adults (are supposed to) have over kids is a better-developed prefrontal cortex. Plan and control the environment. Behavior will follow. Here’s a non-food example. Which is more effective? Packing away all expensive breakable items in the house — so-called “child-proofing”? Or screaming at infants and toddlers not to play with and break stuff (and subsequently punishing them when they do)? Food is similar. Remove unhealthy foods from the environment, and whether it’s okay to eat something will not be an issue. In the Judeo-Christian mythos, God shows how *not* removing unhealthy foods from the environment leads to no good (obesity =) for the entire human race.

    Di and Lynn’s experiences do not demonstrate that “people can’t miss what they never had” is necessarily incorrect. They both had exposure outside the home, at school and friends’ houses. Consider cigarettes. If a kid has no exposure at home, but they’re allowed to smoke when they’re at school or with friends, what do you expect the result to be? Junk food is the kid-equivalent of cigarettes. All sorts of brain pathways will be activated to keep them coming back for more. Best to avoid the problem altogether if possible. “Zero” exposure. (Wish I knew how, with schools installing vending machines and such.)

  9. All I can say is that I wholeheartedly agree with Di. Passing on food obsession is a curse. And, in my opinion, food obsession encompasses cutting out certain foods. Food wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t “good” and “bad” food. I wish I could have developed a better relationship with food according to how it made me feel. Naturally, I’ll feel more energized after eating healthier foods, and I wished I could have learned to enjoy them because of that and not because they have fewer calories.

  10. When my oldest daughter was born she weighed 6lbs 8 oz. She was 6 weeks premature – so she was fairly big considering she wasn’t full term. When I brought her home I nursed her. She gained about a pound a month. I had to take her to the pediatrician’s office every month and I couldn’t fatten that baby up for the life of me. Feed her cottage cheese I was told. I wasn’t worried about her at all. She was happy, thriving, alert and quite a smart child. By the age of 12 months she weighed about 20 lbs. She was thin until she turned 5 and then she ballooned out. The baby fat she never had finally arrived. For the next 14 years she was over weight. I tried not to obsess about it. I encouraged her to eat properly and to avoid the unhealthy “stuff”. She was unhappy with how she looked. I worked on trying to get her to be happy with herself the way she was. Puberty hit and everything changed. Now at 21 she is gorgeous. She eats healthy, doesn’t drink pop or alcohol and doesn’t smoke or do drugs.She drinks mostly water, works out to keep her shape and indulges in the occassional icecream or chocolate snack. Still, I encourage her to not let her exercise get to the point of obsession. I encourage her to be aware that everything that she is doing is good – but to keep in mind to keep it all in perspective and keep it at a healthy level. That is the best we can do – be there, be supportive, and watch for the signs that things are no longer being done at a healthy level.

  11. In our society obese is almost a curseword; is a synonym for ugly and considered a sign of lack of control; thin-ness, even when produced via methods that are horribly unhealthy, both mentally and physically, is seen as a plus. So the choice you are posing seems to be be overtly despised or hide your vice. These aren’t real choices. Serve good food, model healthy behavior, and don’t obsess over every choice your child makes – or nag. And yes, they will make the choices. Didn’t we? Eating together in a relaxed warm environment is probably more important than exactly what your children eat moment to moment [that is not an endorsement of lousy food choices]. And when talking with your kids about other people, reflect on their contributions to society and not on their looks.

  12. I actually wrote my dissertation on a very similar topic. Is there any relationship between parents controlling their kids eating (either through restricting the consumption of sweets or forcing them to clean their plate of veggies) and eating disorders later on?? What I found is that the more parents control their kids’ eating, the more it sets them up for disaster later on because they have not developed the ability to pick up on their own hunger cues and self-regulate. By labeling sweets as “off limits” it makes them want sweets even more, which could lead to bingeing later on. Just my 2 cents.

  13. the fact that you obsess about this the way you do has probably already affected them. my mother was the same way and i almost died from bulimia. how selfish you are to project your feelings toward food onto them – especially a little girl. i am appalled by this!

  14. “And when talking with your kids about other people, reflect on their contributions to society and not on their looks.” THIS SAYS IT ALL. SHAME ON YOU FOR BEING SO SHALLOW! YOUR POOR KIDS WILL SUFFER.

  15. @Kim: Please, could you tone it down a bit? I think it’s a bit inappropriate to guilt-trip a mother who (judging by her post) is feeling quite guilty already and has lots of struggles of her own. It’s not as if mothers were the only people responsible for how children turn out – society, school, friends, father and siblings also play their part.

    @Therese: All I can add to your post is from my own experience as a daughter and a woman who’s dealt with EDs. It sure must be difficult to balance your issues and worries while trying to do the best for your children at the same time – especially if what works for you doesn’t work so well with them…

    My mother also controlled the amount of food and sweets we were allowed (We had to ask if we wanted to snack on an apple between meals). Needless to say, once I got into primary school, I was wolfing down any sugary treat I could buy or find. Although I didn’t turn out ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’, I’ve never had a healthy attitude towards food or my weight, either. Food was connected with guilt, want, desire – a whole range of emotions that overrode its actual purpose, i.e. providing nutrition for body and soul.

    Honestly, I think you shouldn’t worry too much about either EDs or obesity. In my experience, parents’ attitudes and insecurities are more readily picked up on by kids than their more ‘obvious’ lessons. Don’t get me wrong, provide them with healthy, tasty food, encourage them to try a variety of foods, teach them to cook and shop, eat and enjoy eating healthy yourself! But don’t be too hard on yourself or them when any of you ‘fail’.

    There is no ‘perfect’ when it comes to eating, we don’t have to make the ‘right’ choice all the time, because in some situations, e.g. a birthday party, a second slice of cake may actually feel totally ‘right’ and not a tiny bit ‘wrong’. Trust your feeling.

    We all know instinctively when we’re hungry or full and what we’re hungry for. It’s only when food becomes tied to everything else (social expectations, fear, comfort, etc.) that we learn to ignore those cues. So probably the best any mother can teach her child is to listen to the signals of her/his body and to respect them. (I wish mine had. It’d have spared my 15 years of self-recrimination and struggle.)

    Ask yourself what your daughter has asked you: What will happen if I have a second snack today? Probably, the answer will be: ‘You won’t be hungry and are going to miss out on your lovely dinner of XXX.’ And that’s a shame, but it’s not the end of the world.

  16. Daniel-
    There is no way for children to never be exposed to sweets, especially if they are going to be going to school, watching TV, or going to friend’s houses that allow sweets. Denying them sweets at home at all times, just reinforces the “forbidden fruit” concept. Granted, it’s not necessary to have sweets and junk food in the house at all times, but they shouldn’t be off-limits.

  17. For my family, we try to zero-in on eating to be healthy rather than viewing how much a person’s weighs as a measurement of health.

    We eat whole wheat bread because it is healthy for you and actually tastes better than white bread.

    Try staying away from processed foods as much as possible and stick with real food.

    I purchase healthy fresh foods for my family (two kids) but do purchase the occasional bar-b-Q chips for special occasions. I don’t make a major case out of the occasional junk food but I also don’t load the cabinets with junk food either.

    Both of my kids go trick or treating and every October about a week prior to Halloween I have to throw out the previous year’s load. I do not restrict or make a major case out of the candies. I can tell you that most of it sits in the cabinet until it is time to trick or treat again.

    I think the key is moderation. Fill your kitchen with healthy REAL foods so that typical meals in your home are healthy. And allow the occasional junk in once in awhile.

    Health is on Your Plate …



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