Yes, you really do need to stop dieting if your child has an eating disorder. Why? Because dieting is a core behavior of almost all eating disorders.
Let’s start by defining the word dieting, because it’s gotten a bit confusing. Dieting is the behavior of restricting intake with the goal of controlling weight. You can call it a heathy lifestyle or trying to get “back on track,” but if the basic behavior is limiting food intake with a stated or implied outcome of controlling or reducing reduce weight, then it’s a diet.
And I get it: all of us were raised in a culture that promotes dieting everywhere. We’re told by parents, friends, doctors, educators, and self-help gurus that weight control through dietary restriction is both necessary and healthy.
What they don’t tell us is the very clear evidence that restricting food with the goal of weight control almost always results in weight cycling. In 95% of cases, all weight will be regained, and in about 65% of cases, more will be gained. Most diets are interspersed with and/or followed by periods of binge eating. Finally, people who diet are up to 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder. See: Research Library
I understand the desire to diet and lose weight. But we really must overcome the endless cycle of dietary restriction that is neither sustainable or healthy.
There is a very good chance that you, like many parents, are engaging in regular cycles of dieting followed by binge eating to various degrees. It is an ingrained part of our culture, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Nonetheless, when your child has an eating disorder it’s an urgent opportunity to get off the diet cycle and adopt a healthier approach to food.
3 reasons why parents need to stop dieting when they have a child in recovery for an eating disorder:
1. Dieting is eating disorder behavior. Parents who continue to diet during eating disorder recovery are modeling the very behavior their child is trying to recover from.
2. Dieting is dangerous. There is no level at which food restriction is safe or healthy for a person who has/had an eating disorder. It’s hard/impossible to stay safe in a household in which other people are dieting.
3. Dieting is fatphobic. Eating disorder recovery requires a person to release their fear and judgment of fat. This will be hard/impossible to do in a household in which people are dieting and therefore fatphobic.
Ways of eating
I’m going to introduce three ways of eating. The first two probably feel familiar. The third one may feel unreasonable or impossible to you. But if you have a child with an eating disorder, then it’s time to stop dieting. Learning responsive or intuitive eating is the healthiest path forward for you and your child.
When dieting or restricting, we cut down on food intake. Most of us automatically think in terms of the calorie-counting diets we grew up with. But those were our mothers’ diets. Today there are hundreds of ways to restrict intake without counting a single calorie.
We can cut out food groups like meat, dairy, fat, and carbs. Or we can cut out any “processed” foods. This is really code for foods like chips and ice cream, since every food is technically processed in some way before we eat it. And, of course, we can cut out sugar.
There can be a lot of spoken reasons for cutting these foods out, usually the pursuit of health. But the hidden reason and desperate hope of all diets is to lose weight. The basic formula of a diet is that we rely on external measurements such as time of day, food, calories, weight, etc. to tell us when to eat, how much to eat, and what to eat.
Today, it is a cultural expectation and assumption that we cannot trust our bodies and must dominate and control them with restrictive diets. And there is a $72 billion industry that profits off our addiction to dieting. See: The Diet Industry
The most common outcome of dieting and restricting is binge eating. You have probably noticed that the more you restrict, the more you crave high-fat, high-carb foods. That’s just your body doing what it’s supposed to do. The body seeks homeostasis (a steady state) constantly. This means that when we attempt to change its weight, it will fight back. This is a biological process.
Far from so-called “emotional eating,” binge eating often begins with a biological demand for food. And this biological demand is driven by dietary restriction. This is something that few people talk about.
Usually when someone binge eats we assume they have no self-control. But in fact what has happened is that in some way they have been restricted, and their body drives them to eat the food they need to achieve homeostasis. Often these binges can become larger than simple caloric replacement because we became over-hungry and the body, being smart, wants to eat a bit more to protect us from future scarcity.
For decades diet companies have vilified binge eating as a weak-willed, pathological problem. They have told us the answer is greater willpower and more rigid restriction. Their solution to this problem is yet another restrictive diet that they promise will finally work. Hint: it won’t. The actual cure for binge eating is eating enough food.
The body is wise, and its purpose is to keep us in a state of homeostasis. To do this, it wants enough food. The body has a natural and intuitive sense of how much food it needs to stay in a steady state. The body’s demand for food has been pathologized, but it is in fact healthy.
It is hard to imagine going from restrictive diets and binge eating to responsive eating. We must begin by removing all imagined control over the scale and trust our bodies to find the weight at which they are healthy (not some arbitrary number determined by insurance companies).
This first step can be the hardest and most important. As long as we hold onto the illusion that we can and should control our weight and pursue a number on the scale, we set ourselves up to return to dieting and binge eating.
Once we release weight as a goal, now we can begin to eat from a place of food freedom. A lot of people misinterpret this as a free-for-all. But that’s not intuitive at all. A person who is in tune with their body tends to eat a varied, healthy diet. They provide good structure and nutrition for their body because that’s what it wants. All foods are allowed, and the body gets enough of what it needs.
This concept is terrifying for many, since we’ve been taught to dominate our bodies and follow rigid diets that have us counting and measuring food. We are taught that the body, unrestricted, will always want too much. But that’s a lie.
Responsive or intuitive eating teaches us to allow all foods and pay attention to our bodies rather than dominate and control them. It’s a major mindset shift that has a proven track record for being healthier for both our bodies and our minds. See: Intuitive Eating
How to stop dieting
We are all learning and growing all the time. When a child has an eating disorder, there is room to grow and develop new skills. Not dieting is a new skill that, like all skills, can be learned.
Start by learning more about the non-diet approach and Health at Every Size. When parents stop dieting, their kids may find it easier to recover from an eating disorder. And that alone makes it worth it.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.