Eating disorders are known to be complex, and many parents find that a child who has an eating disorder seems completely stuck in their misunderstanding of food and body size.
There are two crucial elements to healing from an eating disorder:
The first is emotional: a person must learn to process feelings and emotions in a healthy manner rather than using weight, food and body obsession as a maladaptive coping mechanism. On a personal mind level, the person who has an eating disorder learns to respond to emotional discomfort by placing attention on food and body size rather than acknowledging, accepting and processing the discomfort.
The second may surprise you: it’s understanding and mourning the fact that restricting food in the pursuit of weight loss is counter-productive. This knowledge attacks the social and environmental influences that drive eating disorder behavior. While the core of the disorder is emotional, the behavior of the disorder is a socially-driven assumption that pursuing weight loss is a pathway to goodness, health, and virtue.
Diets gone awry
Eating disorders are much more than diets, but they can easily be seen as diets gone awry. Our children are bombarded with messages about dieting, weight loss, and the thin ideal hundreds of times each day.
Strangers believe it is their right and their duty to tell people, including children, that they are fat and need to lose weight.
Friends and family members opine about the latest and greatest “healthy lifestyle” that helped them finally lose the weight that has been plaguing them.
Diets are everywhere. They are inescapable. And almost every single eating disorder begins with a well-intentioned diet, and the desire, on the part of the person with an eating disorder, to achieve goodness through a weight loss.
Dieting, which is defined as the restriction of calories with the willful intention of losing weight, is the core of disordered eating behavior. Thus, recovery from an eating disorder absolutely must address the idea of dieting and caloric restriction and address the commonly assumed but woefully incorrect societal “knowledge” that weight loss is possible, healthy, and virtuous.
The science of diets
Dieting is none of these things. In fact, while marketers push out messages from the $70 billion dollar diet industry, scientists have been steadily proving that there is absolutely no justification in pursuing weight loss. In fact, dieting causes people to gain weight.
Here are the facts, which are surprising to all of us given that we live in a sea of diet-positive marketing messages:
1. Diets don’t work
Yes, diets will cause short-term weight loss, but 95% of people who go on a diet have regained all of the weight lost plus more five years later. But it’s not often just a single long weight regain process.
Typically, dieters go on and off several diets in a constant attempt to maintain their weight loss. This leads to weight-cycling, in which a person must perpetually be on increasingly stricter diets in order to maintain a body size that approximates what they believe to be “healthy.”
One year after starting a diet, most people have lost 6% of their starting weight. Following that, the majority of people slowly but steadily regained weight for 5.5 years, which was the concluding date of the study, and showed no sign of ceasing the weight gain following the diet. (Dansinger, et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 2007)
2. Diets cause weight gain
Each time a person goes on a diet, they send their body into a red-alert state in which metabolism permanently slows and fat is stored more aggressively for the rest of their lives. Every weight loss cycle increases a person’s baseline weight, and every diet makes it harder to achieve the weight at which the person started when they first began dieting.
For all the “lifestyle programs” that tell us this will not happen as long as we exert willpower, they are wrong. Our bodies have subconscious influence over our weight. These subconscious powers consistently overcome our conscious willpower, no matter the type of lifestyle we pursue.
Within four years, two out of five dieters end up heavier than they were before they lost weight. Deliberate attempts to become thinner strongly predict weight gain over the long term. (Dulloo, et al, Obesity Reviews, 2015)
3. Diets are not healthy
Diets are based on the assumption that high body weight is bad, however, the research showing that fat is actually deadly is surprisingly weak, and there is in fact evidence showing that fat is protective. But even if high body weight is truly unhealthy, weight loss is not a good treatment, given that dieting does not improve standard measures of health and causes more trauma to the body than higher weight itself.
When studies have measured blood pressure, cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood glucose levels, they did not find that participants’ measurements improved with weight loss. Additionally, low fitness, smoking, high blood pressure, low income, and loneliness, and even the initials of your name(!) are all better predictors of early death than higher body weight.
Given the research that exists, it is surprising that we don’t know these facts. It is even more astounding that doctors and healthcare professionals continue to prescribe diets despite the fact that diets don’t work, weight loss causes weight gain, and weight loss compromises our health.
“It is unethical to continue to prescribe weight loss to patients and communities as a pathway to health, knowing the associated outcomes – weight regain and weight cycling – are connected to further stigmatization, poor health and well-being. The data suggest that a different approach is needed to foster physical health and well-being within our patients and communities.” (Journal of Obesity, 2014)
Parents fighting eating disorders
Parents who want their child to recover completely from an eating disorder can directly tackle the science of diet failure and use the science of weight loss to help their child stop reaching for diet behavior as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable feelings.
The science of dieting can destroy our child’s automatic habit to diet and restrict. When parents provide research and support for the fact that dieting is none of the things our child assumed (good/healthy/virtuous), we can make a huge impact on our child’s recovery,
Often, when we destroy the diet behavior, our child may search for another coping mechanism, which provides therapists and parents with an excellent pathway to teaching adaptive coping skills for uncomfortable emotions. These adaptive coping skills can replace the eating disorder and, as they become habitual, the eating disorder can recede completely.
Mourning diets as a cure for humanity
It is surprisingly difficult when we realize that weight loss is not the pathway to goodness and health that we thought it was. All of us have internalized the diet industry’s aggressive marketing messages, and the fact that our trusted healthcare professionals continue to prescribe weight loss is deeply concerning.
It is important to reach for new information about diet science with a gentle hand. Losing weight loss as a coping mechanism for all that we think is wrong in our lives is surprisingly traumatic.
Many of us must mourn the idea that we can improve ourselves through weight loss programs. Those of us who have eating disorders mourn this loss even more than others. Our grief reflects the difficult truth that there is no simple program to achieve goodness and virtue, and they are definitely not achieved via our bodies.
Support your child as she/he mourns the loss of weight loss as a cure for her/his humanity. Your support and compassion will directly impact the other important element of healing: learning to feel feelings.
In this way, parents can help children heal completely from eating disorders and move on with their lives in healthy, adaptive ways.
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.