We live in a dangerous time during which parents believe they are responsible for controlling or maintaining their children’s weight. Parents believe that if they don’t control their children’s food intake, their child will become fat, which is considered by many to be a fate worse than death. According to Ellyn Satter, a well-known expert on feeding, the crisis we face today is not childhood weight, but a crisis of parenting and feeding.
Living in diet culture has convinced parents that our own bodies and those of our kids are at constant risk of gaining weight. However, weight is more highly correlated with genetics and environment than it is individual behaviors and eating patterns. Another big indicator of childhood weight is how parents feel about weight: parents who worry about children’s weight and try to get or keep them thinner raise heavier children.
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. The problem we’re facing is that parents think they need to control their kids’ food to the point of disregarding their child’s preferences. The problem we’re facing is that parents attempt to restrict their child’s food intake to the point of driving 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 correlated with worse health outcomes than high body weight.
Wanting a thin child
From the day of our child’s birth, medical professionals begin reporting on our child’s weight and editorializing what it means. It’s always some variation on the theme of BMI – either your child is right along the “average” curve (which implies perfect nutrition), is below (which implies more nutrition is needed), or above (which implies less nutrition is needed). The BMI conversation continues at every doctor’s meeting we attend with our child.
Our healthcare providers spend an inordinate time discussing our kids’ BMI, mainly because it is one of the few markers they can use to guide their annual conversation with us about our child’s health. But the focus on our kids’ weight can actually have the opposite effect that they were hoping for, because just the idea of wanting to have a thin child can actually result in parents increasing their child’s natural weight. This is because weight is much more complex than we have been led to believe.
Popular media suggests that weight is a simple equation of energy in and energy out (it’s not) and that any body can achieve low body weight with willpower and effort (it cannot). Popular media is simply wrong. Our bodies are complex, and the only way to override a body’s natural and complex weight system is to diet, which causes a lifelong reduction in the body’s metabolic rate, higher lifetime weight, and 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
Adults who believe that a child will overeat and eat only junk are reflecting their own food issues, 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 who have never had their food controlled and who are encouraged to eat based on their personal appetite vs. external food rules neither overeat or undereat most of the time.
“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. If we are living in a state of fear of weight gain and controlling our own food, we will do the same with our 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 that children are not to be trusted with food and should be tightly controlled with rules like “no sugar,” “only organic food,” and “no soda.”
The most common refrain from concerned parents is 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. It 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
Food restriction is the primary technique in all weight loss efforts. 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 are not able to separate their bodies from themselves, which is why parents who try to restrict a child’s body have the unintended consequence of the child feeling emotionally restricted.
“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 all sorts of emotional side effects, and in some cases, it will be eating more than is physically comfortable or eating less than the body needs. Both sides of the spectrum, overeating and undereating, 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
We strongly recommend any of Ellyn Satter’s books, including the one that inspired this article, Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.
The foundation of Satter’s approach is that parents are responsible for feeding, and children are responsible for eating. This means that parents should provide healthful and delicious food choices and allow the child to determine which of those choices 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 one 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 and begin parenting their children without fear of either.
“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.