My daughter is almost 10 years old and overweight. I think she is also addicted to food.
While I like the ideas on your website, I’m still concerned about her weight and how she eats. We have a great relationship, and I feel like it’s time to address this with her directly before it gets out of control.
At the same time, I’m afraid that talking about her weight will impact her mental health. I’m also afraid that if I don’t do something about her weight it will impact her physical health.
She often overeats. She sneaks food. She loves high-fat, sugar, and carbs. I think she may be addicted – her world revolves around food. A lot of your advice is to let her body do its own thing, but what if her weight is to the point of being harmful. What should I do?
Signed, Worried Mom
Dear Worried Mom,
I’m so glad that you reached out! I totally understand how challenging this is for parents to navigate. I want to thank you for thinking so carefully about your daughter’s health and for doing research that runs counter to everything we’ve been taught. Our cultural narratives about “overweight” and “food addiction” might come from a good place, but unfortunately, they can cause tremendous harm for our kids, including body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.
First, let’s address the weight issue.
We have been told two things: 1) “too much” weight is bad; and 2) we can and should reduce our body weight. Both of these are incorrect and harmful for many reasons, but here I’ll give you the highlights.
1) The concepts of “overweight” and “obesity” are based on BMI measurements, which have been shown to be bogus and a waste of time. Every body is different, and a higher BMI does not correlate with worse health. In fact, people who are in the “overweight” category according to BMI are slightly healthier than those at lower weights. This is shocking but true. You can find tons of data to support this in our resource library and in these articles on our site.
2) As hard as we try, the human body does not want us to lose weight or maintain a weight lower than what it (the body) wants to be. There is not a single scientific study showing that any weight loss efforts last, and each time we lose weight, we regain it plus more. This has a surprising impact on our lifetime body weight: those of us who diet and control our weight even once in our lives are heavier than we would be if we never lost weight intentionally. You can find more about this in our article about the science to support a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to health.
There are tons of resources on this site to further demonstrate why your concerns about your daughter’s weight, while perfectly understandable, are unnecessary. Furthermore, if you can find a way to stop worrying about her weight, you will help her achieve the healthiest weight for her individual body.
Next, let’s talk about eating.
Our society has given eating a bad rap, and everyone, our kids included, is afraid of eating to their appetite or responding to hunger with adequate food. Our kids (just like adults) get bombarded with messages about what they “should” and “shouldn’t” eat, and they internalize those messages and (understandably) become very confused with what they should actually do to nourish their bodies.
Most of us who sneak food and “overeat” are typically restricting food in some way at other times. It turns out that sneak eating and binge eating has nothing to do with addiction – it’s just a natural response to undereating. Once we start to feed ourselves as much food as our bodies need (and each body needs a different amount of food), most binge eating and sneak eating issues disappear.
This may seem strange since most people assume we need to control and restrict food, but in fact, what we really need is to be free from restrictive food thoughts and behaviors.
When all foods are allowed, and our body is nourished and allowed to exist without being policed, we eat and grow according to our own biological patterns. This may mean that we grow into a larger body than we want (based on societal “beauty” standards), but we actually don’t have a choice – our bodies will find a way to weigh what they want to weigh!
Think about it this way: if your daughter were growing really tall, would you worry about what she is eating, or would you just assume that’s what her body is supposed to do?
Height and weight are both largely pre-programmed, so it’s not crazy to compare these two.
Please consider reading Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, by Ellyn Satter, which I think will answer a lot of your questions about how to proceed. I also have this article: How to feed your child without fear of “bad” food and weight gain.
Finally, I encourage you to reach out to a non-diet dietitian for at least one meeting to discuss your child (many will meet via phone).
I know that you can help your daughter regain body trust and grow according to how her body is supposed to. I understand this is not easy advice, and I send you so much love as you pursue this journey with her.
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.