'Fat' Is a Banned Word in Our House

little girl eating a cupcake

My daughter came to me after lunch with a request. "I ate a little more than half of my sandwich. Can I have some cake?" To most moms, this would be an easy question to answer. But I always pause before I wade into a discussion about junk food with my 9-year-old. I have to consider how to answer without using dangerous words, words like "fat" or "calories."

We don't use those words in our house. More to the point, we don't let those words cross our 9-year-old daughter's lips.

In a country where 108 million people are said to be on a diet at any given time, often making four to five attempts per year to control their caloric intake to lose weight, it's hard to keep these words out of the conversation. And yet, we're making a concerted effort in our house.

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You see, I have an eating disorder. I've had it since I was not much older than my 9-year-old, and I will have it for the rest of my life. I rarely purge anymore, but the monster is always in the back of my mind, telling me to put a blanket over my thighs because no one want to see that, to suck it in when the camera comes out, to skip lunch today because of the dinner I ate three days ago.

I've gotten help for my disease, enough help that the monster's voice is reduced to mere background noise in my head most days. But as my daughter gets nearer and nearer to puberty, the worries I've had since birth have begun to get louder in its place.

After all, eating disorders tend to run in families. By the very nature of having a mother with bulimia, my daughter is at a heightened risk of body dysmorphia.

Her gender betrays her here, too. While boys can -- and do -- develop eating disorders, females are much more prone to the disease.

And it can all start with something simple. Focus on fat. Calories.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, some 35 percent of "normal" dieters progress to "pathological" dieting. Of those, as much as 25 percent progress to disordered eating.

I am not worried for nothing.

And so the competing voices make a cacophony in my head. "Watch her. Watch yourself. Watch what you say."

Just a few weeks ago, I realized my daughter was wearing the same pair of much-too-small-for-her shorts over and over (despite repeated requests that they go in the hand-me-down pile). When I questioned her about the shorts, she claimed it was simply the braided belt that she adores that has made parting with this particular pair so hard. Still, I've noticed she's begun to look at the number on the tag in her pants. She's mentioned more than once that she can "still fit into" a size 6.

I worry.

More From The Stir: Why I'm Telling My Daughter About My Eating Disorder

We went to the county fair, and -- like any normal kid -- she begged for deep fried Oreos, funnel cake, and latkes. I quickly calculated the calories in each ... and then scolded myself for it.

It's summer. It's one day at the fair. A little junk isn't going to kill her. Not when you consider she'd had a breakfast of Cheerios and milk. Not when you consider we'd spent the afternoon walking all over the fairgrounds. Not when you consider she has always been on the slim side. 

I let her eat the junk because she deserves to be a kid, and because I work hard not to let my eating disorder hold my daughter back.

Still, I worried.

I made it clear to her that these are "occasional" foods, not something she can eat every day. That's hard for any parent to teach their child -- the difference between treats and "real" food.

So how do you do it when you've banned "fat," banned "calories" from your vocabulary? How does one adequately explain what foods are "good" for you?

It's easier than you'd think. We talk about healthy foods in our house and unhealthy foods. We use words like protein and carbohydrate, talk about vegetables versus sugars.

We talk about how foods make us "feel" instead of how they make us look.

We buy things that my have "low-fat" or "non-fat" on the label, but we don't make a big deal out of it. It's just the brand we buy, the same way we always buy a certain brand of dish detergent or laundry soap. And while I do look at the ingredients on boxes, I try to explain that I'm looking for things like "high fructose corn syrup" that manufacturers like to slip in.

I try to focus her away from the numbers -- be it on the tag on her pants or the calorie content -- but on the quality of food and of life overall. I want her to enjoy exercising, to enjoy eating, to feel good about life and about her body. I want her to be in a routine of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly so she never has to consider fat content or calories at all, never has to "diet."

One of the beautiful things about kids is that they come into this world a blank slate. They don't have bad habits such as eating too much junk food or sitting around all the time. We get to start them out with healthy routines, with a positive body image. And hopefully -- if we instill those values deep down inside of them -- they will carry through for the rest of their lives. 

How do you handle the "fat" conversation with your kids?

 

Image © iStock.com/stacey_newman

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