I have noticed something that really concerns me. When I get together with my grown daughter, she 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 have to begin by addressing the fact that your letter suggests several mistaken assumptions in our society about food and weight, so before I answer your question about binge eating, we have to unpack some of your assumptions.
First, regarding weight. You say that your child was on the chubby side as a child. I wonder how you treated her when she was heavier. Did you support her dieting efforts? This is really important because having parents who believe our weight is a problem is a risk factor for eating disorders. Another major risk factor is dieting. One in four people who go on a diet will develop an eating disorder. If weight bias and diet encouragement were part of your child’s youth, then she is at higher risk of an eating disorder today.
Bodies all have their own unique makeup. We face tremendous pressure in our society to force our bodies to be smaller than they naturally want to be, but it is never healthy to restrict food or eat with the intention of losing weight. Our bodies have powerful survival mechanisms that kick in when we intentionally lose weight, and these mechanisms are the reason that 95% of us who intentionally lose weight end up weighing more than we started at. When we diet, we slow down our metabolic rate and become more efficient at storing fat forever.
I’m telling you this because while I know that you are very concerned about your daughter, you also sound like you think her weight is a problem, that her weight has always been a problem, and that dieting is the solution to the problem you perceive. But weight is never the problem – our response to weight is the problem.
Because if our bodies are shamed and seen as disgusting by the people who love us and by society at large, we are likely to be heavier due to the stress induced by weight stigma. And, as I’ve already said, we’re also likely to get heavier each time we restrict our food in pursuit of weight loss.
Before you say anything to your daughter about your concerns about her binge eating and/or binge eating disorder, I’d like to ask you to become informed about weight stigma and the truth about dieting. If you do decide to approach her, do it only when you are really clear that 1) your daughter’s weight is not and was never the problem, and 2) dieting is never a good idea.
Next, I’d like you to consider your daughter’s eating patterns as if she were a thin person. If she were thin, would you care that she 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, many times people who are in larger bodies actually consume fewer calories and eat a nutritionally healthier diet than people who are in smaller bodies. This is based on their metabolic rate, which, for larger people, is often slower due to a number of factors including genetics and past dieting.
So, really think about how your daughter eats in light of this bias. Is she really eating “too much” or are you assuming she eats too much because you think she’s fat? Are you sure you are seeing a “binge,” or just a person in a larger body eating food?
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.
If your child does have 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
- Eating much more rapidly than normal
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
- Eating when not physically hungry
- Eating in secret due to embarrassment
- Feeling disgusted, ashamed, and guilty about eating habits
If your adult child has binge eating disorder then she is in a lot of pain. If you learn about weight stigma and reject diet culture, then you may consider saying the following to her:
“Honey, I have learned a lot about weight and dieting, and I’m concerned that when you were younger I pressured you about your weight and eating habits. I regret doing that, and I’d like to check in and see how you are doing.”
That’s it. Don’t say “I think you binge eat.” Don’t say “I’m worried about your health (because you’re fat).” In fact, leave food and weight completely out of your conversation. 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 and disgusting?
Your concern as a mother should center entirely on her emotional experience. If she expresses shame and guilt about either her body or the way that she eats, then encourage her 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 in this fatphobic world.
Sending Love … Ginny
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.