If your child has been diagnosed with an eating disorder like Bulimia, Anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), then you are likely putting all of your focus and energy into your child’s recovery. This takes a tremendous amount of work as a parent, and you deserve respect and accolades for all that you are doing to help your child.
One thing that parents who have children who have eating disorders must consider is that they should be working in tandem with their child to heal their own disordered eating. Eating disorders occur along an Eating Behavior Spectrum, and almost all of us in our society today engage in dangerous practices to either side of the healthy center of the spectrum.
There is a very good chance that you, like most of us, are engaging in dieting and overeating regularly. It is an ingrained part of our culture, and there is nothing to be ashamed of if this is where you fall. Nonetheless, all of us as parents seeking healing for our children must make adjustments to our own disordered eating behavior to support our children’s true recovery. The good thing is that adjusting our own eating patterns toward the center of the spectrum is healthier for our bodies and our minds long-term.
3 reasons why parents need to stop dieting when they have a child who is in recovery for an eating disorder:
1. Someone who has an eating disorder will undergo a process of learning to eat intuitively and must learn that their body is healthy at any size. As a parent, you must learn and internalize these same practices to help your child fully heal from an eating disorder.
2. Dieting is strongly associated with eating disorder development. Parents must not model disordered eating behavior in front of their children who have eating disorders.
3. We live in a society that talks openly about dieting and disordered eating behaviors. Children who are recovering from an eating disorder need a safe haven at home where they can feel confident in never dieting again.
The eating behavior spectrum
In the center of the spectrum are the rare people who are Intuitive Eaters. They eat what they want to eat, when they are hungry, and they stop eating when they are full. While we are all born as intuitive eaters, most of us learn habits of restriction and binging through life, and lose our intuitive understanding of what our bodies need. Intuitive eating has been shown to result in lower lifetime body weight and higher lifetime health. It requires a complete change in mindset, but the results are nothing but positive.
To the left of Intuitive Eaters fall Dieters. These are people who don’t trust their bodies and feel they must rely on external measurements such as time of day, food calories, and our body weight to tell us when to eat, how much to eat, and what to eat. Today, it is a cultural expectation and assumption that we must restrict our food intake using external measurements with the goal of controlling our body weight.
On the far left of the spectrum, we have Anorexics. This is a very rare condition, but it is also very deadly. Someone who is Anorexic has taken dieting to the extreme. People who have Anorexia Nervosa have become dangerously over-identified with food and body weight. Anorexia Nervosa is a complex mental disorder that goes beyond Dieting, but almost all people who develop Anorexia Nervosa began their disorder with a Diet.
To the right of Intuitive Eaters, we have Overeaters. These are typically people who are responding to the body’s natural instinct to fight against dieting. In fact, overeating is almost always in response to restriction. We restrict our food by time, calories or some other external measure, and begin to starve. To compensate, our body drives our mind to obsess over food and Overeat to make up for earlier restriction. To make sure we are safe, our bodies actually drive us to eat even more than we would if we had never restricted in the first place. This is what drives the dreaded “weight cycling” of dieting.
On the far right of the spectrum, we have Binge Eaters. Binge eating is a component of the two most prevalent eating disorders – far exceeding that of Anorexia – Bulimia, and Binge Eating Disorder. In both cases, a Binge Eater uses food and eating as a way to numb themselves. As they are consuming massive quantities of food, their bodies seem disconnected from their minds, and they typically enter a sedated state of mind in which they are able to eat far more than is comfortable for the body.
Time to heal ourselves
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, it’s OK. This is not the time to judge yourself. This is about noticing the patterns that define your life and making adjustments for your own personal health as well as that of your child.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.