My son has a problem with overeating. Once he starts eating, he can’t stop, and sometimes he eats so much that he actually throws up. I recently found out that he has been hiding food from me and sneak-eating behind my back. He’s always been on the larger side, and now he’s gaining A LOT of weight. He’s getting HUGE! I’ve always tried to raise him as a healthy eater. What’s going on?
Signed, Scared He’s Too Fat
First, I’m so sorry to hear this. We live in a culture that demonizes food and fat, and I know how very hard it is to parent in these conditions. Parents are blamed and shamed for how and what their kids eat, and parents are shamed if their child lives in a larger body. It makes sense that you’re worried about this. I understand.
His body is not the problem
Let’s begin by addressing body size. We have been convinced that our body size is controllable, when in fact our bodies are programmed to achieve the weight that makes it biologically comfortable. We must all learn to accept body weight as something that is largely out of our control. This will reduce much of the accidental harm we cause by pursuing weight loss and weight control.
Your son has always been in a larger body, and he may always be in a larger body. Most importantly, his body size is largely out of your control, so you can take that off your list of responsibilities. In fact, he will be more likely to be healthy if you are not driven to reduce his weight.
Intentional weight loss results in weight regain, often plus more, for 95% of people. It is ethically wrong to ever prescribe intentional weight loss for any body. Luckily, there are lots of ethical ways to pursue health without focusing on weight.
If he’s received messages throughout his life that his body is a problem that must be controlled, then that’s where your work as a parent must begin. You may understandably believe that the problem is his eating and weight, but it’s very possible that the true problem is that he can’t accept his body and himself exactly as he is.
Please build your understanding of weight stigma and find ways to validate your son exactly as he is, regardless of his weight.
Let’s talk about eating
Next, let’s take a look at his food behavior. You are right to be concerned. It’s hard to know if he is binge eating or “overeating.” Let’s break down some important terms:
- “Overeating” is a completely relative term and often is based on a biological need for food. He may simply need more food than you think he does. Everyone sometimes eats too much. It’s OK – the body can handle this and will typically even things out without any intervention.
- Binge eating is more serious. It involves eating large quantities of food in a single sitting followed by shame and self-recrimination. Binge eating, when done regularly and over time, is a symptom of an eating disorder and needs professional care.
- Sneak eating is a signal that he is feeling shame about food and that there is a lack of trust in the parent-child relationship. It is problematic from an emotional and relational standpoint.
- If he is vomiting after eating, that’s a sign of dysregulation and a disconnection with his body. It’s also a symptom of an eating disorder.
Based on your letter, I encourage you to seek professional support for his eating behaviors as soon as possible. Make an appointment with a nutritionist who practices from a Health at Every Size, non-diet approach. This is critical, because any form of restriction or pursuit of weight loss can be damaging for your son’s health. Please also seek the support of a therapist who can provide an assessment for binge eating disorder.
We have a directory of HAES professionals to help you get started.
Why do people binge eat?
The most common reason people binge eat is an underlying sense of restriction or that they cannot get “enough” nourishment. In some cases, the hunger is as simple as a healthy drive for food. Your son may not be feeding himself enough food throughout the day, which can set him up for binge eating. In other cases, hunger is driven by emotional needs.
Most of the time, binge eating is based on a combination of these factors. When a person feels they need “too much” and are “not allowed” to eat as much as their body needs, they are deprived. This leads to a powerful biological drive to eat.
Paradoxically, people who struggle with binge eating disorder often recover when they are given unconditional permission to eat exactly the food they want. This, combined with therapy and new emotional regulation skills, often provide the tools to recover from binge eating disorder.
Parents and eating
If a parent has restricted food choices in any way, or assigned judgement to soothing hunger by eating food, the child’s drive for food can become complicated and fraught with emotion. This is where eating disorders can take root.
This happens more frequently than most people realize. And it’s not that parents are bad. It’s just that we live in a culture in which we are made to feel very worried about natural hunger.
Parents are deeply concerned when a child appears to need “too much.” Parents are worried when their child is “too big.” And parents tend to judge certain foods as “healthy,” and others as “unhealthy.” This well-meaning concern can lead us to restrict our child’s choices and quantity of food, which can have the unintended consequence of leading to eating disorders.
Food restriction seems like something we are supposed to do, and some doctors and nutritionists still recommend it. But it goes against ethical standards and has been specifically advised against by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What you can do
First, please make an appointment for your son as soon as possible.
Next, work on your own relationship with food and body weight. Like I said, it’s totally normal if you are currently seeing both through the cultural lens called diet culture, but I encourage you to read more about Health at Every Size and shift your beliefs.
Now, open the pantry and let him eat. Stock your home with a wide variety of tasty foods of all sorts. Encourage your child to eat comfortably with you and in front of you without shame or judgement.
I realize this may sound strange. But remember that the restrictive approach isn’t working – he’s “overeating,” vomiting, and sneaking food. Opening the pantry psychologically and physically may result in increased food consumption for a little while, but the long-term impact, when combined with therapy, is a relaxation around food.
An open pantry combined with therapy will help him heal his relationship with food
Opening the pantry will likely make a significant difference in your son’s eating habits. You may notice that when given full unrestricted access to food he eats even more at first, but you must be patient and understand that such behavior is a natural response to restriction. His hunger will settle down once he trusts that his needs will always be met. You must truly believe that your child’s drive to eat is natural and healthy, and you must fully support his eating patterns and body size.
Work on your parenting around this issue for a while, and give both of you time to learn new concepts and adjust to a new relationship with food and body weight.
Most importantly, please know that you are correct to be concerned about your son’s behavior. He is currently in danger. This is not a situation that will naturally fix itself, and it will take significant effort on your part to help him. It will be inconvenient and difficult for you, but it’s well worth the hassle to help your son be healthy.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.