How to feed your child without fear of weight gain

It’s challenging to feed a child when you’re worried about their weight gain. Messages about feeding kids the “right” foods and avoiding weight gain are everywhere.

Many parents worry that they will make terrible mistakes when feeding their kids. They worry about feeding children “too much” so they gain weight. And they worry about creating body image and eating issues. It can seem like an impossible equation.

We live in a dangerous time for body image and eating disorders. Decades of fear mongering have created conditions in which parents believe they must control or reduce their children’s weight.

Parents believe that if they don’t control their children’s food intake, their child will gain too much weight. They worry that the way they feed a child will either create or prevent weight gain. Many parents believe that larger children result from poor feeding practices.

We think it’s our fault if our kids are larger. Ellyn Satter, a well-known expert on feeding, says the crisis we face today is not childhood weight, but a crisis of parenting and feeding.

Living in diet culture

Living in diet culture has convinced parents that bodies are at constant risk of gaining weight. However, weight is more correlated with genetics and environment than individual behaviors and eating patterns. A parent cannot prevent a child from gaining weight without creating major side effects.

Parents may be surprised to learn that focusing on weight can actually increase weight. Parents who worry about their kids’ weight raise heavier children compared to those who do not. If you feed your child less to try and avoid weight gain, you may accidentally cause weight gain.

Our kids’ weight is not the problem we’re facing in our society. The problem we’re facing is that parents disregard their child’s bodily needs. Parents think they need to control their kids’ food to the point of disregarding their child’s preferences. Parents often attempt to restrict their child’s food intake and accidentally drive dangerous food behaviors.

These problems underlie most eating disorders, which have serious consequences for life. Eating disorders impact at least 10% of the population (NEDA), and are on the rise. And eating disorders have worse health outcomes than high body weight.

Wanting a thin child

From the day of our child’s birth, medical professionals report on our child’s weight and editorializing what it means. It’s always some variation on the theme of BMI. And conversations about weight gain are typically centered on how parents feed a child. Here’s how these conversations go:

  • On the “average” curve, which implies perfect nutrition
  • Below the “average” curve, which implies more food is needed
  • Above the “average curve, which implies less food is needed

But the BMI scale was developed to be used on a population scale. It was never intended to guide individual health. No weight chart can ever tell you what is healthy for your child.

Our healthcare providers spend an inordinate time discussing our kids’ BMI. When faced with an otherwise healthy child, doctors discuss weight because it is one of the only measurements of interest.

But in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics told doctors to not talk about weight with children and adolescents. This is because it often causes harm, and very seldom is helpful.

This is because weight is much more complex than most of us understand. Even doctors may have these false beliefs:

  • Weight is a simple equation of energy in and energy out (not true)
  • Anybody can achieve low body weight with willpower and effort (not true)
  • People who weigh more, eat more and move less (not true)

None of these beliefs is true. Our bodies are complex. The only way to override a body’s natural and complex weight system is to diet. But dietary restriction creates significant stress on the body. It also reduces metabolic rate, increases lifetime weight, and leads to poor health outcomes.

“Being thin is not the most important thing for your child. Most important is knowing you love him and accept him for being just who he is—thin or fat, tall or short.” 

Ellyn Satter

Controlling food

Adults who believe that a child will overeat and eat only junk are reflecting their own food issues. This is not the reality of how children naturally eat.

Our children are born with innate hunger and food satiety signals. They have a perfect system of bodily feedback. Children can be raised without food control. They can be encouraged to eat based on their personal appetite vs. external food rules. These children neither overeat nor under-eat most of the time. Their bodies find a healthy homeostasis based on their unique genetics and environment.

“My message—one that not all parents are pleased to hear—is that your child’s eating is determined by the way you feed,” says Satter. “They depend on regular meals and snacks to know they will get fed. If they don’t know they will be fed and allowed to eat as much as they want at frequent and predictable times, they will eat as much as they can whenever they can. Their fear of going hungry will override their cues of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction and make them eat until they can hold no more.”

How we feed our children reflects our own beliefs about control

Many parents live in a state of fear of weight gain. They control their our own food, so it seems to makes sense to do the same with children. This approach to eating is extremely “normal” in our society today, but it is also maladaptive and unhealthy. Nobody should live in fear of their bodies and food. Typically, this fear begins early and is reinforced often in our society.

Parents who want to raise healthy children must actively resist the cultural messages. We must reject the idea that children are not to be trusted with food and should be tightly controlled. Parents need to forget rules like “no sugar,” “only organic food,” and “no soda.”

Parents worry that if they don’t control their kids’ eating, their kids will eat only candy and potato chips for every meal for the rest of their lives. This is rarely the case. In fact, parents who follow Ellyn Satter’s feeding method find that their children naturally have varied and healthful eating patterns.

This only sounds impossible if you have lived in fear of your own insatiable appetite. Once parents learn to trust themselves around food, they realize that they can trust their children around food, too.

“Normal feeding is providing the child with a variety of nutritious and appealing food, then letting him decide what and how much to eat based on his internal regulators of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction.”

Ellyn Satter

Restricting food

Food restriction is the primary technique in all weight loss efforts. It is also the foundation of almost all eating disorders. It may include restricting all calories or certain food items (sugar, fat, carbs, etc.).

The goal of all food restriction is to reduce weight and improve health. However, the willful restriction of food is consistently shown to do neither of those things. In fact, it typically leads to increased weight and lower health.

Parents who restrict their kids’ food put their children at higher risk of overweight and eating disorders. This is because parental nurturing is synonymous with food. When our babies are born, the first thing we do is nurture them with food. Feeding our children is closely tied to loving our children. Our children cannot separate their bodies from themselves. This is why parents who try to restrict a child’s body accidentally restrict them emotionally.

“Restricting hurts both emotionally and physically and in the long run will make your child fatter, not thinner.”

Ellyn Satter

A child who feels insecure in their relationship with their parent will develop many emotional side effects. When food is a battleground, kids may eat more than is physically comfortable or less than the body needs. Both ends of the spectrum find their roots in a fundamental lack of self-trust and a parent’s approach to feeding.

“Children whose eating is restrained by their parents lack internal regulators. When they get out on their own, their lack of internal regulators can distort their eating in a variety of ways.”

Ellyn Satter

Ellyn Satter’s approach

Satter’s approach says that parents are responsible for feeding, and children are responsible for eating. This means that parents should provide healthful and delicious food choices. And they should allow the child to determine which and how much food to put in their body. It’s a simple plan, but often requires some major work by parents who are currently stuck in diet culture.

A good first start is to read any of Satter’s books. A great next step is to get support from a non-diet dietitian who has mastered the Satter Feeding Dynamics Approach. With this support, parents can learn to overcome their assumptions about weight and food. They can begin parenting their children without fear of either.

We strongly recommend any of Ellyn Satter’s books. We especially recommend Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.

“Children have a wonderful way of changing when their parents change—provided their parents really mean it.”

Ellyn Satter

Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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