“If I eat the cake, won’t it make me fat?” Her struggle played out palpably across her young face, and I found myself stirred with a mixture of empathy -- and sorrow.
“No, honey, the cake won’t make you fat. Just eat what you’re hungry for, let yourself enjoy it, and stop when you’re full ... when you are happy full.”
As a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, this concept is quite familiar to me, the conflict all-too-typical. It is not unusual to hear myself expressing throughout my therapeutic day this very sentiment to clients struggling to make peace with food.
But today, as I heard myself utter these words, I was not in my role as a psychologist. Instead, I was a mother, hosting my 7-year-old daughter’s birthday party. The young girl, embattled by the decision to allow herself to indulge in something as seemingly innocent as enjoying a piece of celebratory birthday cake, was not my client, she was my daughter’s second-grade best friend.
This moment, both poignant, yet typical, underscored the extent of the existing problem and painfully reminded me of the emotional -- and physical -- tsunami which likely lay ahead.
In a society where one half of adolescent girls (and one third of adolescent boys) currently engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors, from fasting to self-induced vomiting to smoking to curb their appetite, and 81 percent of 10-year-old girls report that they are afraid of becoming fat, the heartbreaking need to turn our attention to the catastrophic reality of ever-increasing eating disorders in younger and younger populations is imperative.
While the problem of obesity is a legitimate concern in both adult and child populations, we as medical and psychological providers, educators -- and parents -- need to recognize that dieting is not the answer to obesity -- nor is it a means to gain healthy self-esteem, confidence or happiness.
Conversely, dieting has the dangerous potential to create eating disorders and to backfire into an unintentional, albeit very real, life-long battle with weight.