I have noticed something that really concerns me. When I get together with my grown daughter, she binge eats a lot of unhealthy food. When she was growing up, she was always on the chubby side, but she dieted a lot and generally kept her weight under control until she hit her thirties. Now she is 38 years old and quite heavy, and I think she eats too much. I see her eating all sorts of foods like cupcakes, chips, soda, and french fries. I’m concerned about her health. What can I do when I see my grown daughter binge eat? Do you think she has binge eating disorder?
Signed, Worried Mom
Dear Worried Mom,
I can understand why you are concerned, and I can hear how much you love your daughter. In our culture, we make a lot of assumptions about food and weight, and when a person is larger we tend to blame that on their eating habits, forgetting that almost all people – including thin people – eat a variety of food, including cupcakes, chips, soda, and french fries. The assumptions we make about a person’s weight and eating habits can get in the way of diagnosing an eating disorder, so I’m going to unpack some of them.
First, regarding weight. You say that your child was on the chubby side as a child. It’s hard to live in a larger body in our society. I would imagine that she was criticized for her weight. This might have led her to start dieting and controlling her weight, which might have seemed like a good thing at the time. But actually, this worked against her. Dieting is a risk factor for both weight gain and eating disorders.
In almost all cases (+95%) when a person intentionally loses weight, they will experience weight cycling. They regain all the weight they lost, often plus a little more. Weight cycling creates metabolic changes that can remain indefinitely. In other words, dieting to lose weight creates weight gain in almost all cases. Dieting is the No. 1 predictor of weight gain and eating disorders.
Emotional Regulation Worksheets
Give your child the best tools to grow more confident, calm and resilient so they can feel better, fast!
- Calming strategies
I’m telling you this because while I know that you are very concerned about your daughter’s health, I think it’s possible that your main concern is her weight. I completely understand this. We live in a society that blames and shames people for their weight. But true health is not achieved by trying to control weight but by healing a person’s relationship with food and their body.
People like your daughter who are living in larger bodies feel the weight of our society’s blame and shame. The problem may look like it’s the number on the scale, but the real problem is that she’s been blamed and shamed for living in a body that doesn’t fit into narrow societal expectations. Weight-based blame and shame lead to poor health outcomes.
Next, I’d like you to consider your daughter’s eating patterns as if she were a thin person. If your grown daughter were thin, would you worry that she binge eats cake, fries, and other fun foods? Most people eat these foods, but we are conditioned to notice it more and criticize people who are living in larger bodies because we assume that they are larger because of the way they eat.
This is a false assumption. In fact, people who are in larger bodies often consume the same or fewer calories and eat a diet equal to that of many people who are in smaller bodies. A larger body is typically genetically primed to have a slower metabolism and be more efficient in extracting nutrition. And if a person has dieted, they have further reduced their metabolic rate. These factors are out of your daughter’s control. We cannot change her genes or past weight cycling.
So, really think about how your daughter eats in light of this common bias. Is she really eating “too much” or are you assuming she eats too much because her body is large? Are you sure you are seeing a “binge,” or just your grown daughter in a larger body eating food?
I’m saying all this because binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, but it is also terribly misunderstood and frequently mistreated by loved ones, healthcare providers, and even eating disorder treatment providers. This is due to weight stigma and diet culture.
So we want to unpack your assumptions before jumping to the conclusion that she has binge eating disorder. At the same time, if she does have an eating disorder, then your support can help her find healing. If your daughter has binge eating disorder, then she is most likely experiencing some or all of these symptoms:
- Feeling a sense of being out of control while eating substantial quantities of food
- Skipping meals in an attempt to “make up” for binge eating episodes
- Going on diets and trying new ways to lose weight
- Eating rapidly and/or until uncomfortably full
- Eating in secret due to embarrassment
- Feeling disgusted, ashamed, and guilty about eating
If your adult child has an eating disorder then she is in a lot of pain. And this pain goes beyond eating. Here are some of the signs of an eating disorder that have nothing to do with eating:
- Avoiding social situations due to fear of being seen as “fat” and/or not wanting to be seen eating
- Exhibiting signs of body shame like hiding her body in large clothing, trying to make her body as small as possible in social situations, etc.
- Withdrawing from and avoiding close relationships
- Seeking comfort from addictive behaviors like drinking, gambling, shopping, etc.
If you suspect she may have an eating disorder, consider the following actions:
- Learn about weight stigma and reject diet culture
- If you need it, get therapy or coaching to address your own feelings about her body
- Keep your eyes on your own plate when eating, and don’t comment on her choices when she’s eating
- Don’t criticize her body or suggest that it’s wrong in any way
- Encourage her to talk about how she is feeling about herself and her life
- Focus on her mental health, not her body
She’s an adult. That means a few things. First, she is responsible for her own health now. You can support her, but advice can be tricky. Listen more than you advise. Focus on being curious rather than making recommendations. Second, as a larger woman, she is absolutely aware of her weight already. A lot of times people think larger people need to be informed of their weight and the dangers of living in a larger body. Trust me on this: she’s heard it all. Any attempt to tell her that she’s large will infantilize her and inflict weight stigma. It will not help her.
Your focus should be entirely on how she feels emotionally. Is she happy? Confident? Living in a black hole of shame? Traumatized by years of believing her body is wrong?
Your focus as a mother should be to give her compassion and acceptance and to recognize the stigma she faces living in her body in a society that is cruel to bodies like hers. If she expresses shame and guilt about either her body or the way that she eats, then mention that she may want to seek support from a non-diet dietician or therapist, who will be able to help her find peace and will recognize and treat an eating disorder if one exists.
It is hard to parent in a culture obsessed with weight and food, but when we learn more about the stigma our kids live in we are better able to help them find health and healing.
Sending Love … Ginny
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.
1 thought on “Ask Ginny: My grown daughter binge eats”
I was on a restricted meal plan for type 1 diabetes management as a kid, pretty suddenly from the age of 7 until I got my insulin pump around age 10-11, and I’m pretty sure that that treatment (while it was 100% medically necessary at the time as far as I know) was a major reason for me developing whatever I currently have (food obsession/compulsive eating/binge eating and sometimes a bit of food hoarding?). Especially when I hit puberty, got my insulin pump (negating the need to stick to a strict pre-planned meal regimen because I didn’t have to rely on insulin injections whenever I wanted to eat carbs anymore), and started gaining weight (and had the chance to eat secretly because I would be the only one home for awhile after school), my parents noticed this cycle developing and had no idea how to handle it (and my endocrinologist was putting pressure on both me and them to get my weight down for “health reasons”). It was bad in a lot of ways, and I’m still not totally over how any of them treated me at the time. Anyway, today I still don’t always feel comfortable eating what I want/as much as I want in front of my family. I’m over 18 now, so at least I was able to set hard limits with them and my endocrinology practice about intentional weight loss/dieting, and they’ve seemed to respect those.
(Also, living on my own and having some control over my own food purchases helps me, because I get to just eat what I want in the first place, instead of eating something else that’s “healthier,” and then cracking and eating what I originally wanted to eat anyway, but with extra calories in the process. I’m still not a model practitioner of HAES, but it and fat acceptance helped me a lot in my life.)
Other than infodumping about my past food-related trauma, I wanted to say: OP, your daughter is an adult now. You can’t make her do anything anymore. Other than generally making it clear that you’re there for her no matter what she might be dealing with psychologically (and then coming through on that promise), and trying to make any lasting body image or food trauma you might have caused her right as much as you can, there’s not much you can do anymore.
If she’s like me (an autistic/ADHD introvert with big social anxiety and RSD) and doesn’t necessarily have a great support system outside her family members, or an easy time meeting new people, you might gently offer to help her work on that however she wants, because she ideally needs to have people she depends on emotionally other than you. This way, she might feel less of a need to not risk alienating you to the detriment of her own emotional health (like, by not setting/enforcing boundaries with you, or not communicating her feelings clearly for fear of hurting you). In addition to not being healthy, that fear could (somewhat paradoxically) cause her to resent you, or any efforts or offers you make that could actually benefit her and do come from a genuine place of love and desire to help (idk, in my experience at least).
Anything you do, has to center around her informed, affirmative/explicit consent. My parents tend to be helicopter/steamroller parents as much as they’ve also helped me with lots of stuff, and it’s still hard to tell them about things I want to try to achieve, because I’m worried they’ll either take control of the project from me and dictate how I do it regardless of my needs or desires, or just constantly badger me about whether or not I’ve done whatever I needed to get done yet, until I’m doing it to please them, rather than for myself. She may be struggling with similar anxieties, regardless of whether that’s actually a fair assessment of your parenting style (sometimes things come off in ways they weren’t meant to; I get that).
A lot of this has probably seemed harsh toward you, WM, and I apologize. This is just a letter I could imagine my parents writing about me in a lot of ways, especially back after college graduation when I still lived at home (although calling me their “daughter” would be misgendering, and they knew that even back then). I have no idea what kind of parent you were other than the fact that you noticed your daughter was “chubby” as a kid (which doesn’t automatically mean much), or what your daughter’s specific issues are other than possibly bingeing (she may just eat more than you think she should given your views on her weight? Or you may mostly see her at holiday gatherings these days, when eating more food is generally more socially acceptable?). But idk, maybe some of this will help or at least give you food for thought.