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Data in support of the non-diet approach to health

Data in support of the non-diet approach to health

Despite what every magazine, influencer, newspaper and even your doctor says, the data we have available is in support of a non-diet approach to health. This is surprising and even shocking to many people, but it’s important that we turn the tide on diet propaganda and look at the facts.

NOTE: every statement in this article is linked to scientific research. Simply click on the link within the paragraph you’re reading to see the source.

Dieting is a national obsession – why?

In November 2020 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that more Americans are on diets now compared to a decade ago. A 2009 study estimated that 24% of American men and 38% of women were actively attempting to lose weight. Meanwhile, 70% of American women 50 or older report that they are trying to lose weight.

And alongside the increases in diet efforts, the weight loss industry grew. In 1984 the U.S. the weight loss industry generated about $10 billion in revenue. That number jumped to $72 billion in 2019.

While it markets itself as a health initiative, weight loss is a money-making industry that has experienced tremendous and highly profitable growth. And while it’s been very successful as an industry, it’s been a failure in terms of health and weight. There has been no increase in population health and the rise of the diet industry parallels an increase in U.S. body weight of about 10 lbs.

This is good for the diet industry, because it points to the weight gain as the problem it’s here to solve. But the data in support of a non-diet approach to health shows that:

  • Dieting leads to weight regain
  • Most dieters regain the weight lost plus more
  • Dieting is bad for your health
  • Dieting leads to eating disorders
  • Reported risks of fat itself are surprisingly incorrect

These proven facts are rarely spoken of outside of non-diet circles. Why? Because they don’t support fatphobia, or weight stigma, which is pervasive and was intentionally built by the massive and highly-profitable weight loss industry to sell products.

Dieting leads to weight regain

Since the 1950s, health and mental health professionals have criticized the conventional wisdom that permanent weight loss is possible. Clinical trials on weight loss have high dropout rates. Additionally, they rarely have participants move from one weight category to another. Finally, the overwhelming majority of people who lose even 5–10% of body weight have regained it 1 year later.

It is well established that weight loss can usually be achieved by restricting food intake. But the majority of dieters regain weight over the long-term. But why? Is it because people are bad at dieting? Or do they just slip back into bad habits?

The answer may surprise you. Because it’s actually completely out of the dieter’s control. It’s a biological fact that our bodies want to maintain our weight. When a body loses weight, every system works to get it back to where it was. That’s why no current treatment for weight reliably sustains weight loss.

Within 9 years of weight loss, 95% of women and 93% of men were unable to maintain the reduced body weight. This figure is regardless of the weight loss method, amount of weight lost, or starting BMI. In other words, diets have a 5% success rate. Five percent would be considered a complete failure for any other medical recommendation. No educated medical professional would recommend a treatment with this level of failure. Yet they do recommend intentional weight loss. It boggles the mind!

Dieting leads to additional weight gain

You may be thinking that while regain is possible, at least you tried! But regaining weight lost isn’t the only problem with intentional weight loss. The majority of people who diet end up heavier than they were when they started. Again, this is biologically based. It’s not due to bad diets, bad dieters, or any other modifiable personal behavior.

Studies show that about two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets. And these studies likely underestimate the reality.

Over time, after controlling for age and body mass index (BMI), mild dieters gained about 6.7 lbs. And severe dieters gained about 10.3 lbs compared to non-dieters. You read that right: dieting causes weight gain.

Intentional weight loss is a predictor of accelerated weight gain. The odds of becoming “overweight” by 25 years were significantly greater in people who dieted compared to those who didn’t. Dieting is linked to increased susceptibility to weight gain, independent of genetic factors.

Dieting is bad for your health

There is no evidence that dieting results in health improvements, regardless of weight change or weight status. But, even worse, dieting has serious side effects. In fact, dieting itself is correlated with many of the problems often attributed to higher body weight.

Dieting is associated with a higher risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality. This is even after adjustment for pre-existing disease, initial BMI, and the exclusion of those in poor health. This means that dieting is associated with earlier death. In other words, dieting in an attempt to extend life expectancy is actually associated with a shorter life expectancy.

The primary issue with dieting is that restricting calories, which is how most people lose weight, increases the body’s cortisol levels. Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. It controls blood sugar levels, regulates sleep, manages our use of fuel, reduces inflammation, and controls blood pressure. Increased cortisol has been shown to lead to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • Impaired brain function
  • Increased infections
  • Muscle weakness
  • Osteoporosis

Every one of those side effects of dieting is associated with being at a higher weight. But the act of trying to lower your weight actually increases your risk for these physical ailments.

Dieting leads to eating disorders

Dieting is the most important predictor of new eating disorders. Teenage girls who dieted were 5-18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. The rate depended on how severely they dieted. The more intense the diet, the more likely they were to develop an eating disorder.

Adolescents using weight-control behaviors were at increased risk for binge eating. They also had more behaviors such as self-induced vomiting and use of diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics. While not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder, the chances increase dramatically with every weight loss attempt.

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that impact people of all ages, genders, races, sexual identity, and socio-economic status. Global eating disorder prevalence more than doubled from 2000 to 2018. It increased from 3.4% to 7.8% of the population. This is particularly alarming considering there are few proven treatments. Eating disorders are considered extremely difficult and are very expensive to treat.

Reported risks of fat itself are surprisingly incorrect

You may have heard that fat is “deadly.” Perhaps you believe that people who fail to lose weight are “killing themselves.” But it’s simply not true. This very useful analysis of weight research provides an excellent review of the truth about fat:

1. Obesity is not an epidemic

An ‘epidemic’ of overweight and obesity implies an exponential pattern of growth typical of epidemics. The available data do not support this claim. Instead, in the US there is a relatively modest rightward skewing of average weight on the distribution curve. The majority of people weigh ∼3–5 kg more than they did a generation ago.

2. Overweight and obesity are not major contributors to mortality

Except at true statistical extremes, high body mass is a very weak predictor of mortality. It may even be protective in older populations. 

3. Higher weight does not cause disease 

Causal links between body fat and disease remain hypothetical. It is more likely that higher body fat is a symptom of underlying metabolic processes. It’s unlikely that fat is a direct cause of disease.

4. Long-term weight loss is neither beneficial nor probable

 There is no evidence that people who are obese and overweight can achieve a lower weight. Nor that doing so will improve their health.

The anti-diet approach

The anti-diet approach is based on a core belief that diets are more harmful to health than weight. The data clearly support the concept of a non-diet approach. Diets create health complications and solve none. People who follow an anti-diet approach are often accused of not caring about their health. But the opposite is true: anti-diet is pro-health. And being anti-diet does not mean you don’t eat well and pursue other health-promoting behaviors. It’s just that you pursue them without the goal of weight loss or weight control.

There are proven behaviors that support health and longevity, but none of them rely on weight loss as a result. For example, exercise is good for your health. So are adequate sleep and healthy, fulfilling relationships with other people. Being anti-diet means you may choose to pursue these activities for your health. But the impact of these behaviors on the scale is irrelevant.

Other factors impact health more than weight

Additionally, the non-diet approach recognizes that there are factors that impact our health more than weight. These factors are out of our control. Genetics is the primary driver of weight. Additional factors include racism, discrimination, sexism, sexual harassment, poverty, food insecurity, and environmental toxins. These factors are directly linked to lower mortality and increased disease. People facing these factors may indeed have higher body weight. But it is not the weight itself that is causing their health problems. Instead, it is societal and environmental issues over which they have no control.

Finally, the non-diet approach recognizes that weight stigma is actually a risk factor all on its own. Weight stigma is the belief that fat is unhealthy and deadly. The health impact of weight stigma is likely the same as those often blamed on weight. Most likely, the problem is not the weight itself, but the way society treats people who are at higher weight. Heavier people are actively discriminated against in almost every professional, medical, and social setting.

In summary, it’s better for your health to weigh more and never diet. There is no benefit to dieting, and it is associated with significant health complications. Living at a higher weight than you want to be can be hard in our society. But that’s a societal problem, not a problem with your body. The data definitely support a non-diet approach to health, and I hope you’ll find out more and make the shift!


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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10 cognitive distortions that support eating disorders

cognitive distortions and eating disorders

People who have eating disorders often exhibit 10 common cognitive distortions that are well known in psychology. In fact, many therapists begin with an assessment of these 10 cognitive distortions:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking
  2. Overgeneralization
  3. Mental filter
  4. Disqualifying the positive
  5. Jumping to conclusions
  6. Magnification and minimization
  7. Emotional reasoning
  8. Should statements
  9. Labeling and mislabeling
  10. Personalization

What does “cognitive” mean?

Cognition is defined as thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving. Cognitive distortions are often distorted thoughts and thinking patterns that get in the way of feeling good about oneself and others.

Cognitive distortions are a hallmark of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and many other mental disorders. The good news is that cognitive therapy is very effective, and parents can do a lot at home. Counteracting cognitive distortions can help people gradually replace distorted thinking with healthy, adaptive thinking.

Cognitive distortions drive eating disorders

It’s easy to get caught up in the behaviors of eating disorders. We can obsess over a child’s eating patterns, exercise, and body weight. But the real thing we need to be looking at is their thought patterns because their thoughts underlie the behaviors. We think it’s food and weight that drive eating disorders. But in fact, it’s these 10 cognitive distortions that often lie beneath the surface of eating disorder behaviors.

These cognitive distortions are treated in eating disorder treatment. They may linger after the eating disorder behaviors have receded. It is a good idea to be aware of these cognitive distortions. If possible, continue your child’s therapy as long as these distortions are present.

1. All-or-nothing Thinking

Someone who has an eating disorder often has what is commonly called “black-or-white” thinking. Nothing in nature is only one way or another. We all exist in the gray areas in between.

Eating disorders are based on the concept that food and weight are black and white issues. For example, a child might think “I’m fat” if they have even an ounce of fat on their bodies. This is despite the fact that all bodies must have some fat in order to be alive. They think “I ate too much” if they have stomach fullness. But feelings of fullness and satiety are perfectly natural biological feedback. They think “sugar is bad” even though sugar is just a food and is part of a normal diet.

Try this: If you see your child suffering from all-or-nothing thinking, intentionally talk about the gray area. If you’re watching a TV show together and the characters believe there are only two options, talk about how there are always many options. Notice when you make statements that support all-or-nothing thinking and correct yourself out loud in front of your child. If your child shares all-or-nothing thinking like “if I start eating I’ll never stop,” respond with something like “I know it can feel that way, but I don’t think your only options are either eat nothing or eat everything. There’s so much space in between.”

2. Overgeneralization

Someone who has an eating disorder tends to take note of negative experiences. They conclude that if they happen once, they will happen over and over again.

For example, they may think “I always overeat, and that’s why I’m fat.” This is even if they barely eat anything most of the time and then, to compensate, occasionally binge eat. If they fail to meet an arbitrary weight goal, they think “I’m never going to lose weight and will be lonely and miserable my whole life.” Overgeneralization feels like the absolute truth. This is despite the fact that many people may tell them in specific terms that they are incorrect.

Try this: Notice when people make sweeping statements that overgeneralize the human experience. For example, if you’re talking about a neighbor who “never mows his lawn,” correct yourself and say “actually, that’s not true. He mows it, but just not as frequently as I’d like him to. If your child makes an overgeneralization like “Nobody recovers from eating disorders,” say something like “I know it can seem like an impossible task, but lots of people do recover.”

3. Mental Filter

When a child has an eating disorder, they tend to create an inaccurate mental filter of how they appear and who they are. They see themselves as if through a distorted fun-house mirror.

This is seen in body dysmorphia, which commonly occurs with eating disorders. They literally see their bodies in a way that they do not exist. They may see bulges and bumps that are not there to any but their own eyes. Over time, they find it almost impossible to view themselves in any other way. This happens even when others objectively and authoritatively tell them that they are incorrect.

Try this: The next time your child tells you their body is imperfect, don’t automatically tell them they are beautiful and perfect. Instead, let them know that you understand they see a distorted view in the mirror. Just like those warnings on car mirrors, “objects in mirror are closer than they appear,” the mirror is not an accurate representation of reality. If they are struggling to see themselves, tell them that you see their beauty – inside and out – and will hold that for them until they can do the same.

4. Disqualifying the positive

People who have an eating disorder have an amazing ability to take neutral or positive feedback and turn it into something that reflects negatively upon themselves.

For example, if someone tells them they look nice, they may say they gained weight. If someone tells them they’ve lost weight, they may say that it’s not enough – they still have more to go. If someone tells them they are a healthy eater, they tell them they are far from perfect and need to be better.

This becomes compulsive. They are unable to accept a neutral or positive comment without washing it away with something self-deprecating. The belief behind the disqualification is typically some “fatal flaw” or belief of being “less than.”

Try this: Rather than debate with your child when they disqualify the positive in themselves, let them know that you see it. You don’t have to convince them of their positive elements, but you can tell them that you hold them in your heart and mind. Tell them your vision of them is multifaceted and dynamic, and you will continue to hold that no matter what they say or do.

5. Jumping to conclusions

Many who have eating disorders believe they can read other people’s minds, especially when it comes to negative feelings towards themselves. They may “know” that someone thinks they’re fat and ugly, stupid and lazy, or any other negative belief.

Their mind-reading efforts are almost limitless. They will read the minds of people who are actually not even aware of their presence. And they can obsess about what a person who passed them in a hallway was thinking about them even when the other person actually had no thoughts at all! Sometimes they take mind-reading to epic proportions and confront people about their supposed thoughts with no evidence.

This can have disastrous effects and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They begin to shape the way people see them.

Try this: Listen for when your child jumps to conclusions about what other people think and believe. Say “I can understand why you think that, but I also believe we can’t read other people’s minds. Often when we think one thing, it turns out that we are wrong.” You don’t need to get into a debate about the validity of what you’ve just said. That will only weaken its power. Just let it stand.

6. Magnification and Minimization

This is a habit in which a person who has an eating disorder magnifies their perceived flaws while simultaneously minimizing the idea that there is a problem with how they perceive themselves.

For example, they may think “I’m so disgusting, nobody will ever love me, and I’m going to be sad and alone forever.” If they actually say this out loud, a loved one may become concerned and urge them to seek treatment.

At that point, they will switch to minimizing the problem. They may say “everyone feels like this, I’m nothing special. Life is just hard.” Minimization is partly how they deny the severity of an eating disorder. It gives them the belief that they are not sick enough to warrant treatment.

Try this: It’s important for parents to neither over- nor under-react to these situations. The more you can stay steady and calm in the face of magnification and minimization, the greater your chances of showing your child that there is always a middle ground. No, they may not be the sickest person ever, but they may still have some concerning behaviors that you believe deserve care and attention.

7. Emotional reasoning

When a person has an eating disorder, they take their emotions and emotional thoughts as evidence of the “truth.” This means that if they think they are fat, they must be fat. If they think they eat too much, they must eat too much.

This can also be seen in binge eating mentality, which can begin with “I’ve already broken the rules, I may as well keep eating.” Emotional reasoning is dangerous because thoughts and beliefs are not usually facts. In fact, usually the first, easiest thought that comes to mind is a societally-driven, conditioned thought.

This is classically experienced as “I feel fat.” In our society, “fat” is a euphemism for any number of emotions. These emotions include depressed, lonely, sad, angry, scared, etc. When someone gets stuck in emotional reasoning, they forget to look deeper at their thoughts. They take them at face value rather than utilizing them as signals pointing them towards what is really upsetting.

Try this: Talk to your child about the idea of having a first thought and a second thought. The first thought is a knee-jerk reaction based on our societal conditioning. We need to tap into our conscious thought and look for the second thought, which is almost always much more nuanced and realistic.

8. Should statements

Maintaining an eating disorder is often based on “shoulds.” The most common shoulds are “I should lose weight,” and “I should eat healthy/exercise more.” These shoulds come directly from our society. They are reinforced in almost every aspect of life until they become so pronounced that people notice them as the problematic beliefs they are.

The trouble with should statements is the shame that accompanies them. People inevitably break their shoulds. Our behavior will inevitably fall short of our expectations when we are should-ing all over ourselves.

When a person succeeds in meeting their shoulds, they may feel a temporary sense of self-righteousness. But this is always followed by the terrible fall into bitterness and shame when they inevitably fail something else.

Try this: When your child says “should,” gently remind them that they always have options, and there is rarely a single right solution to any problem. Encourage them to think more deeply about why they believe they “should” do something and help them loosen up those beliefs that are holding them hostage.

9. Labeling and mislabeling

The deeper a person gets into an eating disorder, the more they feel they need to label ourselves, and ultimately it comes down to whether they are “good” or “bad.”

They don’t say “I ate a big meal at lunch today.” They say “I always eat too much.” They don’t say “I carry my body weight in my hips.” They say “My hips are huge.”

These big labels help them feel we have some measure of control over their bodies. This is a false belief because except in very extreme cases our bodies will find a way to achieve the genetic blueprint that largely determines our weight and shape.

A person who has an eating disorder often mixes up who they are as a person with how they appear in their body. A person is not a body – we is infinitely more flexible, adaptable, and interesting. When we define ourselves based on our bodies, we suffer tremendously and deny the world of a bright mind and unique self.

Try this: When your child labels their whole self as some version of “good” or “bad,” talk to them about the idea of “parts of self.” All of us are multifaceted and dynamic. We are not a single monolithic being that can be labeled. If your child says “I’m angry,” say “it sounds like there’s a part of you that is angry right now.” This is a crucial reframing that takes them from a monolithic view to a parts-based, temporary view.

10. Personalization

Many people who have eating disorders take things very personally. They believe that they are personally responsible for other people’s feelings and actions. This means they carry a heavy emotional load that does not help anybody.

Personalization is a terrible situation in which a person gets stuck pointing our fingers at themself, no matter what happens. If they don’t lose weight because their body’s metabolism slowed down, it’s their fault. They also believe that the size of their bodies is responsible for how other people feel.

They may believe that if they maintain a thin body, their parents will feel good and other people will like them more.

Of course, this is not true. If people have any feelings about the weight of another person’s body, that is because they have weight stigma. It has nothing to do with the other person’s body, and everything to do with them. Other people are completely responsible for their own choices, beliefs, and behaviors. While we have influence in relationships, we are never responsible for another person’s feelings.

Try this: Remind your child that they are not personally responsible for anyone’s feelings and behavior except their own. When other people behave badly, that is their reaction to external factors. We do not control other people’s reactions. It’s important to model this in your parent-child relationship. Instead of saying “you make me so mad!” say “I’m feeling very mad right now, and I need a minute to settle myself down.” This way you show them that you are responsible for your feelings and for responding to them appropriately.

Parents can help reduce cognitive distortions

While food and weight issues are the symptoms, cognitive distortions are at the root of eating disorders. The eating disorder behavior is an attempt to manage the cognitive distortions. When parents know to look behind the behaviors to the root causes, they can help their child recover. The more we understand and tend to our child’s emotional health, the better.

Read more about helping your child feel their feelings.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.


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The inspiration for this article came from the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David D. Burns, M.D.

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Four reasons we purge

the reasons we purge

Have you ever wondered the reasons why some people purge? Purging behavior occurs on a spectrum, from people who do it only occasionally to people who do it often as part of an eating disorder.

The reasons people purge vary. Purging is sometimes a normalized social behavior. Some people purge due to physical discomfort from having a full stomach. Most attempt to use purging in an attempt to lose and/or control weight. Others find great physical and emotional relief in purging. When we understand why people purge, we can better help them find other ways to manage the discomfort driving the purge.

In this article we will review the four major reasons for purge behavior:

  1. Socialied purges: socially accepted purge behaviors that are openly discussed in society
  2. Bonding purges: teens and young adults may engage in bonding with friends by purging together
  3. Weight-loss purges: purging can seem like an easy way to lose weight without cutting down on food eaten
  4. Soothing purges: some people experience a positive soothing quality when purging

Types of purging behavior

Purging behavior includes:

  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Laxatives, diuretics and weight-loss medication
  • Compensatory exercise

The majority of serious purging is based on the idea of reducing calories in the body based on the mistaken assumption that weight is directly based on calories digested. But it is important to understand that purging can serve a variety of purposes in our lives.

Purging behavior is often not as “abhorrent” or “disgusting” as it may seem. Most of the reasons for a purge make a sort of sense – they can serve a very real purpose in a person’s life. It is only when a person can understand the behavior that they are able to replace it with more adaptive ones.

Purging and eating disorders

Purging behavior is not limited to Bulimia Nervosa. It can also be seen with Anorexia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, OSFED, and many subclinical eating disorders. Purging behavior can even be a stand-alone disorder.

It’s important to know that purging to control weight rarely “works.” The body is very efficient and can adjust to purging behavior in order to maintain weight status. Thus, many people who attempt to use purging to reduce weight find themselves frustrated because it doesn’t “work.”

Purging of all types, at any level, has been correlated with other risky behaviors. These include smoking, binge drinking, and drug use. [3] One recent finding showed that 13% of North American girls reported purging behaviors in mid-adolescence. [4]

Reasons we purge

These four reasons for using purge behavior may help you understand why it happens and some alternative coping mechanisms. It is our belief that purging, like all eating disorder behaviors, should be approached with understanding and compassion. This will result in better success in supporting recovery.

1. Socialized purges

Socialized purges are socially accepted purge behaviors that are openly discussed in society. The most common example takes place at large meals like Thanksgiving. Many people will talk about engaging in vigorous exercise before or after Thanksgiving dinner. They attempt to “work off” the calories from the meal.

Many family tables involve one or more parents mentioning that they will take a little less food. They say they didn’t exercise that day, and need to compensate. Or they may take a little more because they “were good.” They say they can eat more because they exercised or restricted food earlier in the day. This is called “compensatory behavior” and is a form of calculation in which food is “earned” with the appropriate behavior.

People regularly say things like:

  • I’m going to have to put in some extra miles tomorrow after all these cookies
  • I shouldn’t be eating this, but I’ll go to the gym to make up for it
  • I skipped breakfast so that I could indulge tonight
  • I’ll have to skip breakfast tomorrow to make up for this meal
  • I can eat this cupcake because I burned 500 calories on the treadmill today
  • I’m off to burn 500 calories in spinning class so that I can enjoy dessert tonight.

This is socially normalized behavior, but it is also eating disorder behavior. Parents should be aware that when socialized purges are normalized, we open the door to eating disorders.

We should eliminate socialized purges and any form of food or exercise compensatory behavior from our children’s lives. Food should never be “earned” or “worked off.” It should be enjoyed and appreciated as a critical element of life.

2. Bonding purges

It is not uncommon for teens and young adults to engage in bonding with friends by purging. This may involve group vomiting, drinking laxative teas, skipping meals, and exercising after eating a meal.

Friendships are often the places where people first engage in purging behaviors. They become normalized and attractive as a result. Through friendships, people feel a sense of critical belonging and understanding. When purging becomes a part of a friendship it can become a “sticky” behavior that is done together and can even spread to other friendships or done alone.

The most common social example of this is sororities. Large groups of sorority sisters will share purge behaviors and “secrets” about how to purge. Many will move on from these purge behaviors once they leave the social circle. But the baseline behavior is already normalized and reinforced. As a result, the person is vulnerable to future mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. [2]

Additionally, even “mild” purging behavior is correlated with high-risk behaviors including binge drinking, smoking, and drug use. [3]

If a person is engaging in bonding purges, they may not have a diagnosable eating disorder. But their purging behavior is still a significant concern. A percentage of people who engage in bonding purges may develop additional eating disorder symptoms and behaviors.

Early intervention can make a significant impact. We encourage parents to talk to kids about purging and seek professional support.

3. Weight-loss purges

We live in a society that has normalized and encourages dieting. But dieting is linked to higher lifetime body weight and significant health complications. [5, 6]

Purge behavior can seem like an easy way to lose weight without cutting down on food eaten. However, purging, like all forms of weight control, does not benefit health and carries significant complications.

The desire to achieve a lower body weight is pervasive. It is especially pernicious among teenage girls, the population most vulnerable to developing eating disorders. Dieting is the most powerful predictor of an eating disorder. [7]

Diet culture as a reason we purge

Our diet culture promotes low body weight at any cost. There are countless diet programs available to support people who want to pursue intentional weight loss. But our bodies are finely tuned to maintain their own healthy body weight. This is regardless of what we would like that weight to be. Any restriction causes a healthy and intense hunger response. This often results in binge eating or eating beyond the point of physical comfort.

Often when a person is binge eating, they are driven by extreme bodily needs. They enter a state of emotional disconnection. It’s as if the body turns the mind off so that it can take over and get what it needs.

While binge eating, a person is typically not aware of how much they are eating. Nor are they able to stop themselves. Once a person has “succumbed” to their natural biology and eaten food in response to their hunger, they may turn to purge behaviors to compensate. This can relieve both the physical discomfort and the emotional distress of “over” eating.

Even people who maintain very restricted diets and eat very little food may engage in purging. They believe it is necessary to maintain their diet and/or low weight. In this way, purging can become a part of maintaining a diet. It may occur even without binge-eating episodes.

For example, someone who is on a calorie-restricted diet may eat very little but still purge. They want to “get rid” of any calories that they believe put them over their daily goal. Someone who is on a carb-restricted diet may attempt to purge after a carb-laden meal. But they will not necessarily purge after a no-carb meal.

Purging for weight loss

Purging for weight loss can seem like a “smart” way to manage the pressures of maintaining low body weight. It appears to solve problems for the strict dieter who occasionally or often goes beyond the boundaries of their diet.

Purge behaviors can become dangerously compulsive. They often co-exist with Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa, and OSFED, or become chronic in the form of Bulimia Nervosa.

When a person is engaging in purge behavior they need intensive care. Ideally, they need providers who understand the dangers of diet culture and work from a non-diet perspective.

Providers should not be weight-conscious or promise that a person will not gain weight. They should definitely not promise weight loss. These approaches are outdated and often deepen the underlying reasons for purge behavior.

4. Soothing purges

This may surprise you. Many people who develop chronic purging behaviors experience a positive soothing quality to the action of purging. Eating disorders, especially Bulimia Nervosa, can be described as Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms, which are subconscious mechanisms to soothe anxious feelings.

Bulimia has been linked to underlying problems with impulsivity. This can be defined as urgency, sensation seeking, lack of premeditation, and lack of perseverance. [8]

Lacking self-soothing tools

People who develop Bulimia tend to lack the ability to self-soothe. To compensate, they seek external behaviors such as purging, substance use, and self-harm. These behaviors are sought on a subconscious and incredibly urgent basis. This is why purging behavior can sometimes be described as “addictive,” since it engages a response similar to addictive substances.

People who have Bulimia are more likely to engage in self-harm behavior. They harm at rates between 25 and 75 percent reported in various studies. [9] Just like Bulimia, self-harm may seem like a strange way to soothe oneself. But they are both surprisingly consistent as coping behaviors. 

Like Bulimia, self-harm is a powerful form of non-verbal communication. It is a very valid call for help when the person suffering lacks adaptive methods of seeking support.

Treatment for purging behavior

The reasons for purge behavior are different for everyone. But all people who purge will benefit from professional support so they can build adaptive coping mechanisms. These adaptive methods will help them process pain, anxiety, and fear.

They offer new ways of emotional soothing that don’t involve using external agents like food, alcohol, and drugs. Nor do they remove anything from their body with behaviors like purging and bleeding).

Treatment approach

Treatment for soothing purges should come from a place of compassion and acceptance. A person in recovery should feel free to fully explore the urges that drive their behavior.

Therapists tell us that the goal is to help the person understand what they are seeking with purging. Only then can they begin the process of replacing their purge behavior with more adaptive coping methods. The urge surfing method can help someone mindfully manage urges and replace them with other coping behaviors.

urge surfing

Find a non-diet, HAES-oriented professional to help solve the reasons you or your loved one purges.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.


References: 

[1] Micali, et al, The incidence of eating disorders in the uk in 2000-2009, BMJ, 2013

[2] Field, et al, Prospective association of common eating disorders and adverse outcomes, Pediatrics, 2012

[3] Solmi, et al, Prevalence of purging at age 16 and associations with negative outcomes among girls in three community-based cohorts, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2015

[4] Neumark-Sztainer, et al, Dieting and Disordered Eating Behaviors from Adolescence to Young Adulthood: Findings from a 10-Year Longitudinal Study, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2011

[5] Mann, Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again

[6] Strohacker K, Carpenter, K, McFarlin B, Consequences of Weight Cycling: An Increase in Disease Risk?, International Journal of Exercise Science, 2009

[7] GC Patton, R Selzer, et al, Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population cohort study over 3 years, BMJ, 1999

[8] Anestis, et al, The role of urgency in maladaptive behaviors, Behaviour Research and Therapy, 2007

[9] Marilee Strong, A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain, 1998

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Weight stigma and your child: what parents need to know

Weight stigma and your child: what parents need to know

Parents need to know the dangers of weight stigma because it impacts everyone. And whether your child is thin, fat*, or in between, their health is impacted by weight stigma.

A word about the word “fat”

The term “fat” can be used as a slur or a neutral descriptor. In its neutral form, saying “fat” is the same as saying “tall” or “brown-eyed.” Other words for fat bodies, such as “overweight” and “obese,” are currently considered to be stigmatizing. Many fat justice leaders have reclaimed the word “fat” as the preferred neutral descriptor for their bodies.

However, we should not call someone “fat” unless we 1) are doing so kindly 2) have zero thoughts that they should lose weight; and 3) clearly have their permission to do so. And nobody should ever use “fat” as an insult. It’s always best to let people who live in marginalized bodies to define themselves rather than assuming a label on their behalf. And never tell a person in a larger body that they are “not fat” or should be proud to be fat. It’s their body and their choice to define themselves on their own terms.

Popular media and healthcare providers scream about the dangers of fat. But the real danger is weight stigma and weight discrimination. Weight stigma contributes to physical and mental health complications. These include weight cycling (a natural and expected physiological response to dieting) and eating disorders. Therefore we need to tackle weight stigma in order to reduce these risks to our kids’ health.

What is weight stigma?

Weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight. It reflects internalized societal attitudes toward body size and impacts how we treat each other. Therefore understanding and counteracting weight stigma will help your child avoid body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

Weight stigma is damaging for people who are larger. But it’s also bigotry that impacts people of all body sizes. Ask just about anyone walking down the street today and they are likely carrying internalized weight stigma and body loathing. This impacts their feelings about their body and themselves. There is no benefit to weight stigma, and there are many downsides.

The media and weight stigma

Media and entertainment outlets frequently portray strongly biased views of people who live in larger bodies. They promote weight stigma constantly by depicting fat people in dehumanizing and stigmatizing images. These include newspapers, magazines, books, movies, documentaries, videos, photographs, social media accounts, and more.

The media shows fat people eating fattening foods, sitting, and wearing tight, ill-fitting clothing. But it shows thin people eating colorful salads, exercising, and looking stylish.

The media portrays fat people as lazy, weak-willed, self-indulgent, and a drain on the nation’s resources. This is an ignorant and bigoted presentation. It has solidified the strong belief that fat is bad and thin is good. It’s important to note that the media’s revenue comes from advertising. It’s undeniable that the +$70 billion weight loss industry supports the very existence of our media outlets.

Healthcare and weight stigma

The second leading source of weight stigma is people in the medical and healthcare professions. This creates a significant barrier to healthcare for anyone who lives in a larger body. No visit to the doctor, regardless of the purpose, begins without an attempt to weigh the body.

Anyone in the “overweight” and above categories is lectured about their weight. This is regardless of why they came for a visit. It is also based only on weight, not health behaviors. Many receive lectures about weight reduction. This is despite the fact that there is no proven, safe, and effective method for reducing weight.

Weight stigma in healthcare often results in delayed diagnosis and treatment for many people who have serious medical conditions. Doctors are notoriously fat-phobic. Surveys show the majority of doctors actively dislike larger patients. And this is a major problem considering that more than 60% of their patient population is plus-size.

The playground and weight stigma

Our kids grow up in an ecosystem that is full of weight stigma. As early as preschool, children prefer thin figures in drawings and stories [1]. By elementary school, larger children report unsatisfactory peer relations, including social rejection [2].

Children who are larger are at increased risk for being targets of weight-related teasing [3]. And they also experience more non-weight-related teasing and bullying [4], and other forms of victimization such as physical aggression [5].

As early as the first grade, fat kids are treated differently by their peers. They are more likely to be treated poorly and be disliked. They often struggle with loneliness and friendships. Larger children are more likely to be rejected, made fun of, teased, picked on, and disliked [6].

This is the trickle-down effect of parents, teachers, doctors, and the media actively promoting weight stigma. Children are ostracized, bullied, and discriminated against. And this trauma has lifelong consequences that are much more serious than adipose tissue.

Weight stigma leads to poor health and eating disorders

The “War on Obesity” has failed to reduce the national weight. It has, however, succeeded in increasing weight stigma, which many researchers say is deeply health-damaging. Some people suggest that weight shaming is good because it encourages kids to lose weight. But weight teasing and bullying in adolescence leads to higher (not lower) weight 15 years later.

This means that the “War on Obesity” is actually causing people to gain weight. People who are exposed to weight stigma are also more likely to exhibit eating disorder behaviors including extreme dieting and self-induced vomiting [7].

In cultures with fat stigma, we see more young women who express dissatisfaction or disgust with their bodies, which is an essential precursor (and continuing accompaniment) of eating disorders. [8]. 

There is a strong relationship between the “obesity epidemic” and the proliferation of eating disorders. “If fat bodies were accepted and not hated in our culture, fat people would not embark on restrictive eating or disordered eating in order to lose weight, and the majority would not develop eating disorders.” [9]

You may think it’s healthy to put your child on a diet. But diets have serious consequences. Instead, parents should help them manage the impact and reduce kids’ exposure to weight stigma.

What you can do at home

How you treat your child at home can be an important way to reduce their risk of eating disorders. A home that rejects weight stigma and dieting is safer for your child’s body and mind. And it’s also the right thing to do. No other marginalized community is as openly ridiculed and hated as fat people, and that’s simply unacceptable.

Here are a few basic rules to implement at home. Enforce these rules across all family members and anyone who enters your home without exception. Your child needs to know that bigotry and discrimination are not allowed or acceptable, no matter what.

1. No diets

Nobody in the home should even go on a restrictive diet with the purpose of losing weight. Read why

2. Stop food policing

A wide variety of food should be available to everyone in the home without restriction or monitoring. Read why

3. Don’t fat shame

Don’t allow anyone to tease or criticize another person’s body. This applies to anyone in the family, outside of the family, a celebrity, a stranger, etc. Read why

4. Avoid glorifying body-types

Everyone should learn to avoid making comments about “perfect bodies” and glorifying any particular body type. Don’t praise people for weight loss, discuss methods to achieve weight loss or a “perfect butt,” “washboard abs,” etc.

5. No scales

There is no reason to keep a scale in the home. Throw it away.

6. Health at Every SizeⓇ philosophy

Learn about and embrace the HAES approach to health. Read why

What you can do at school

School is the place in which your child is most at risk of fat stigma. Approximately 43% of larger adolescents reported being teased by peers [10]. Therefore to help your child avoid weight stigma, you must advocate for unbiased schools and classrooms. Here are a few goals for your child’s school environment:

1. Language

Health should not be linked to body weight. Dieting of any kind should never be promoted.

2. Dress codes

Dress codes disproportionately impact people who are larger. Make sure your school is fighting weight stigma by eliminating dress codes. Or at least be sure to enforce them consistently across all body sizes.

3. Weighing

Children should not be weighed at school. There is no educational justification for weighing children at school. School weigh-ins perpetuate weight stigma and have no value. Read why

It may be tricky to advocate for your child’s safety at school, but it is essential. Want ideas? Read Lindo Bacon’s guide for teachers and administrators. 

What you can do at the doctor’s office

Weight stigma in the healthcare setting is pervasive and leads to lifetime health impacts. People who experience weight stigma attend fewer doctors visits, screenings, immunizations, and more. Help your child learn to navigate the health system by doing the following:

1. Don’t talk about weight

Doctors have been advised by their pediatric association not to discuss weight with children. There are many good reasons for this. The pediatric association knows that weight stigma is a problem. And although many doctors still bring up weight in front of children, parents can confidently interrupt and stop such conversations.

2. Don’t tell my child to “watch” their weight

Tell your doctor not to suggest weight loss – even the seemingly benign “move more/eat less,” which is entirely unhelpful. Additionally, the term “watch your weight” was coined by Weight Watchers, a multi-billion dollar company that profits off weight stigma. There is no medical evidence that “watching” weight is health-promoting. And it can lead to dangerous preoccupation and obsession with weight.

3. Treat my child without bias

Weight bias is unconscious, which is why it’s so damaging in the healthcare setting. Bring it to the forefront by stating openly that you are dedicated to fighting weight bias. By making it open and conscious, you reduce your child’s exposure through thoughtless comments.

You may feel intimidated and uncomfortable advocating for your child in this way, but you simply must. If your child’s doctor is not open to having these discussions with you, then you must find a different doctor. Period.

Fight the good fight

Our children need to learn anti-discrimination practices. These include fighting for the unbiased treatment of people who have marginalized race, sexuality, gender and gender identity, and weight. Since weight stigma is openly promoted in our culture, this is a revolutionary but much-needed act.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.


References

[1] Su & Aurelia, Preschool children’s perceptions of overweight peers, Journal of Early Childhood Research, 2011

[2] Gable, Krull, & Chang, Implications of Overweight Onset and Persistence for Social and Behavioral Development Between Kindergarten Entry and Third Grade, Applied Developmental Science, 2009

[3] Gray, Kahhan, & Janicke, Implications of Overweight Onset and Persistence for Social and Behavioral Development Between Kindergarten Entry and Third Grade, 2009

[4] Gunnarsdottir, Njardvik, et al., Teasing and social rejection among obese children enrolling in family-based behavioural treatment: Effects on psychological adjustment and academic competencies, International Journal of Obesity 2012

[5] Hayden-Wade et al., Prevalence, characteristics, and correlates of teasing experiences among overweight children vs. non-overweight peers, Obesity Research, 2005

[6] AW Harrist, TM Swindle, et al, The Social and Emotional Lives of Overweight, Obese, and Severely Obese Children, Child Development, 2016

[7] Puhl, et al., The Role of Stigma in Weight Loss Maintenance Among U.S. Adults, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2017

[8] Polivy and Herman, Causes of Eating Disorders, Annual Review of Psychology, 2002

[9] Watkins P., Hugmever A. D., Teaching about eating disorders from a Fat Studies perspective, Transformations, 2012

[10] Van den Berg, Neumark-Sztainer, et al, Racial/ethnic differences in weight-related teasing in adolescents, Obesity, 2008

[11] Reiter-Purtill, Ridel, et al, The benefits of reciprocated friendships for treatment-seeking obese youth, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 2010

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Are you fat shaming your kids? You’ve got to stop!

are you fat shaming your kids?

Almost everyone has probably fat-shamed and/or been fat-shamed at some point in their lives. People seem to feel compelled to warn other people about the dangers of being fat.

But are you fat shaming your kids? If so, it’s got to stop. Today.

This is bad enough in public forums like Twitter, on magazine covers, and on movie screens, but when parents fat shame their kids at home, it is deeply troubling because it can lead to serious health complications.

Many of us who have eating disorders can remember being fat-shamed by our parents. Living in a society that tells us bodies must be thin to be “good” is a dangerous environment in which body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders thrive.

A word about the word “fat”

The term “fat” can be used as a slur or a neutral descriptor. In its neutral form, saying “fat” is the same as saying “tall” or “brown-eyed.” Other words for fat bodies, such as “overweight” and “obese,” are currently considered to be stigmatizing. Many fat justice leaders have reclaimed the word “fat” as the preferred neutral descriptor for their bodies.

However, we should not call someone “fat” unless we 1) are doing so kindly 2) have zero thoughts that they should lose weight; and 3) clearly have their permission to do so. And nobody should ever use “fat” as an insult. It’s always best to let people who live in marginalized bodies to define themselves rather than assuming a label on their behalf. And never tell a person in a larger body that they are “not fat” or should be proud to be fat. It’s their body and their choice to define themselves on their own terms.

That is why we implore parents to never fat shame their kids. That means:

  • Never talk to your child about their body size, shape, and weight in a tone that is not completely neutral
  • Don’t talk negatively about your child’s body size, shape, and weight to someone else
  • Never talk negatively about another person’s body size, shape, and weight (i.e. yourself, your friends, family members, celebrities, or any other person)

Examples of parental fat shaming

Sadly, there are plenty of examples of parental body shaming. Just a single hashtag (#theysaid) that trended on Twitter in May 2017 exposes hundreds of damaging comments:

Fat Shaming Moms

“Honey you need to take these, don’t you want to be pretty?” my mom giving me diet pills when I was 11 @char_cut

“You need to be careful. You’re getting a spare tire. You’ll end up fat” – my Mum. I was 11 years old. @thesophbot

“You have such a pretty face. It’s a pity you’re so fat. No man will ever marry you.” My mother to me circa age 12 @geekspertise

“You should stop eating,” Being slim is the best body type,” “No one likes fat girls” – my mom and my grandma @iqueenwinters

“Boys don’t date fat girls.” My mom to 10 year old me @lysslynne

“Are you sure you’re not pregnant? You look 6 months pregnant.” My mom @thebaronessM

Fat Shaming Dads

“Keep eating like that and you’re going to be a butterball.” My Dad when I was 12. @oiselle_sally

Father looks at pre-teen daughter as she eats an Oreo and says, “Are you sure you want that?” @amyblaszyk

You have a such a pretty face just think if you lost weight. My dad’s favorite shaming thing to say @mellissadufesne

You don’t want to be a fat teenager. – my dad when I was 12 @jesserin87

“Why can’t you be skinny like your friend? You don’t want to end up like your mother.” Thanks, dad. @stephmillbetty

“You don’t need that, you’re going to be as big as a house!” My dad when I was 6 @whit_brianne

My dad told me that a 16 inch waist was healthy and that I should try to slim down towards it. AKA the circumference of a cd. @dearjuless

My struggles with food started when I was 8 or 10 (and thin) and my dad said my nickname would be lardass @terrybeigie

Fat Shaming Grandparents

“You’re getting really chunky” – my grandmother, when I hit puberty. @thingjen

“Well well Chubby Checker, someone’s put on some weight” – my grandpa after seeing me in a sleeveless top @mmrach82

My grandmother told my mom, in front of me, if Jen wasn’t so fat, I could buy the same size for her and her cousin. I was 4! @jennydbaker

Fat Shaming Coaches and Teachers

“You’ve worked harder than anyone here but you’re just too fat to dance in this production.” My dance studio’s creative director @audaciouslyalex

“If you keep eating pretzels like that you’re going to be as big as a house one day” – 7th grade history teacher @mariamichta

“This is a great exercise for when your thighs start to rub together, emily.” 5th grade gym teacher in front of my class @emmickhue

Pervasive beliefs about fat

We understand there is a pervasive belief in our society that weight and obesity are inherently bad and that all people must pursue diets and weight loss to be healthy. This is not true, but it is a strongly-held belief nonetheless.

Because people believe that weight is inherently disgusting and dangerous, they believe that they must save fat people from being fat, and shame is a common “motivational” approach.

When it comes to parents who fat-shame their children, perhaps the parents are trying to help their children be healthier. But even if you believe your intentions are good, your shaming behavior is hurtful and leads to poor health. It must stop.

Shame is bad parenting

Using shame as a parenting technique is consistently shown to result in very negative outcomes for children. Children whose parents use shame often suffer from low self-esteem and exhibit mental disorders including anxiety, depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and eating disorders.

Parental shaming includes public or private comments, behaviors, and reprimands that negatively refer to a child’s behavior, body, or self. Parents who use shame often:

  • Say that a child is inherently bad
  • Tell a child they are intentionally bad
  • Say that a child’s body is bad (e.g. fat, chubby, unattractive, clumsy, unathletic, unhealthy, etc.)

Parents who use shame believe they are motivating their child to be better. It is a form of behavior modification, but it has been proven to be ineffective and destructive. This is because most people, especially children, cannot distinguish between their impulses, their actions, their bodies, and their selves. Shaming condemns the child, making them feel bad about themself as a human being.

Fat shaming is public and pervasive

While many forms of discrimination have been outlawed in the United States, weight discrimination is still legal. Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, age, gender, religion, disability, or natural origin. But 49 states permit discrimination based on body weight.

Beyond federal laws, it is common practice for the following prominent and explicit fat-shaming activities.

  • People make jokes and rude comments about and to people who are living in larger bodies
  • People talk about their own weight disparagingly
  • Magazines run cover stories featuring celebrities who have gained weight
  • The media characterizes people of size as lazy, slovenly, and dumb
  • Internet trolls openly criticize celebrities for their weight

Fat shaming doesn’t make fat people healthy

The American Psychological Association presented evidence in 2017 showing that fat shaming is not an effective health treatment. “Fat shaming is not an effective approach to reducing obesity or improving health,” said Joan Chrisler, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, during a symposium titled “Weapons of Mass Distraction — Confronting Sizeism.”

“Stigmatization of obese individuals poses serious risks to their psychological health,” she continued. “Research demonstrates that weight stigma leads to psychological stress, which can lead to poor physical and psychological health outcomes for obese people.”

Treatments should focus on mental and physical health as the desired outcomes for therapy, and not on weight, McHugh concluded.

What to do if you have fat shamed your kids

If you have been fat shaming your kids, then send yourself some self-compassion. Yes, what you did was unhelpful, but you didn’t know that at the time. The only way you can move forward gracefully and truly help your child is to have compassion for yourself as you own up to your mistake.

Once you are able to realize you have been fat shaming your kids and you understand that it was hurtful without getting defensive or critical of your child, have a conversation in which you openly admit that what you did was wrong and that you are working to change.

Before you begin, here are a few ground rules:

  • Acknowledge that fat shaming was a mistake on your part
  • Say that you are going to work on your behavior
  • Ask your child to tell you in the future if they believe you are fat shaming
  • Do not get defensive when your child responds. You made a mistake, and you must own that mistake. Don’t defend yourself. Just say you will try to do better.
  • Don’t get into a debate about body size, weight, diet, etc. You are probably not ready to talk about this with your child without potentially doing damage to their body image.
  • Conduct more research about weight and diets.

An apology script

Here is a starting script for apologizing if you have been fat shaming your kids:

“Honey, I’m so sorry. I realize that I’ve made some negative comments about your body, and bodies in general. I understand now that what I was doing is called fat shaming, and I’m going to work really hard not to do it anymore. Please call me out if you hear me fat-shaming you or anyone else ever again. I will do my best to listen non-defensively.”

Why this matters for eating disorder treatment and prevention

As a society and as individual parents, we must recognize that fat shaming your kids can be harmful. Our children who have eating disorders have a multi-layered problem, but the problem at the very top of it all is living in a culture that is obsessed with body weight and dieting. We can do better!


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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When your adult child has an eating disorder

When your adult child has an eating disorder

It is never a good time to discover that your child has an eating disorder. But parents can feel a special type of despair and worry when they learn that their adult child has an eating disorder. 

You may have worries like:

  • Is this my fault?
  • Should I have known about this?
  • Why didn’t my child tell me sooner?
  • What does this mean about my child’s future?
  • Can my child ever recover?

All of these worries make a lot of sense. After all, your adult child is facing a major health problem. But there is so much hope, and you have a significant opportunity to help. In fact, there are parents who play a huge role in helping their kids recover – even if their kids are grown up! And yes, people do recover from eating disorders. You can help.

What you can do if your adult child has an eating disorder

There is no expiration date on parenting. Just because your child is an adult does not mean they don’t need your support. In fact, they need it just as much as ever. But this is a time to take on new opportunities for learning and growing as a parent and a person. If you are up to the challenge, please take it on!

There are many things that are out of your control when your adult child has an eating disorder. But that does not make you powerless. Every parent has incredible influence over their child’s emotional health at any age. Here are the things I recommend parents do when an adult child has an eating disorder:

1. Learn about eating disorders

Eating disorders are biopsychosocial disorders. This means they are based on biological, psychological, and social factors. An important part of the social aspect is family of origin. This is why parents can be instrumental in helping a child recover from an eating disorder.

The more you can learn about eating disorders, the more you will be able to help your child. But here’s a little secret: it’s tempting, but don’t focus too much on food, eating and weight. Eating disorders are mental disorders, which means they are rooted in psychology and behavioral patterns. When you keep in mind that your child is facing distorted thoughts and maladaptive behaviors, you will behave differently than if you think it’s all about the food and weight.

Learn about the triggers that your child may need to avoid during recovery, especially stress. Support them in their recovery by understanding that they likely need to change aspects of how they behave with you and the rest of your family in order to recover. The more you can accept them through recovery, which may be messy, the greater your chance of maintaining a strong relationship beyond recovery.

Learn everything you can so that you better understand what your child is going through. Most people misunderstand eating disorders, so an informed and compassionate parent is incredibly powerful.

2. Let go of what you cannot change

You will not be able to help your adult child heal from an eating disorder if you are living in the past, regretting things you did or did not do. And it also doesn’t help to defend yourself against any thoughts that the past wasn’t perfect. We all have regrets. We all have things we wish we hadn’t done or had done differently.

And an eating disorder is likely going to bring up the past for your family. While it’s important to try and understand your child’s eating disorder, don’t get too caught up in a single event, person, or situation that you blame for it. Eating disorders arise based on a combination of factors – it’s never just one thing.

Try to leave your memory of the past in soft focus and try instead to understand your child’s perspective of the past. What memories do they have, and how can you help them process their childhood? Be curious about their experience rather than trying to insist upon your view of what happened. Perspective is personal, so curiosity is always a better approach than trying to change someone’s mind.

Rather than focusing on the past, consider how you can learn and grow to become the parent your child needs you to be right now.

3. Don’t ignore the pain

Just because you can’t change the past doesn’t mean you ignore the past or refuse to talk about it. It’s very likely that your child will bring up some things about their childhood and your family that they believe contributed to the eating disorder. You can help your child find peace and healing by not being afraid to have hard conversations about pain.

You cannot change the past, but there is some healing to be found in looking at it together with the goal of understanding and soothing old hurts. Pain that is ignored doesn’t go away. And time does not heal wounds. Wounds are healed when they are actively and intentionally cared for, and that includes being willing to look at how the past may still be impacting your child today.

Try to set defensiveness aside and be vulnerable to your child’s unique experience of growing up with you as a parent. If you can face their pain with compassion and stay in your role as their parent, they will be more likely to turn to you for support during their recovery. If you cut them off or ignore their pain, they are unlikely to seek your support.

4. Work on yourself

Many of us live under the assumption that we only have two options for dealing with the tremendous pressure of being a parent: run ourselves ragged by trying to be perfect, or put our hands in the air (or heads in the sand) and feel powerless to do anything. 

Neither of these approaches will bring you closer to your child. They will not help your adult child who has an eating disorder recover. If you can, get some therapy or coaching. Your child will have to change in order to enter full recovery, so it’s best if you have someone who can help you navigate that change with grace and compassion for everyone.

You don’t have to do a bunch of deep work on the past (unless you want to). A professional can help you navigate the here and now with more compassion and peace. This will help you be a better parent and build a stronger relationship with your child.

5. Let your child be an adult

Your child is an adult. It is time to let go of the idea that you have control over their life. You cannot “fix” your child or make everything better by the sheer force of your will.

Moving back in and feeding your child may not be feasible or preferable for them. Your adult child needs to find a recovery path that makes sense for them.

Be careful about over-investing emotionally and financially in your child’s recovery due to parental guilt. Of course you want to help your child. But you need to navigate this area very thoughtfully due to the emotions involved. Find a trusted professional who can help you navigate this path consciously and thoughtfully.

6. Let your child talk to you about the disorder and recovery

You may be very uncomfortable with your child’s eating disorder. But your ability to hear your child’s pain and listen without judgment will make a huge impact on their recovery. 

Many adults who are in recovery from an eating disorder are eager to talk about their experiences and feelings. They are learning new ways to be with themselves and others. Eating disorder recovery is both exciting and terrifying, and it helps to talk about it with friends and family.

But they often find that other people don’t want to listen. It often feels as if everyone wants to “fix” them or they want them to get better. But many times friends and family find it too scary to hear about what’s really going on. This can leave the person feeling isolated and alone, which can lead to relapse.

It will mean a lot to your adult child if you allow them to talk about their disorder and treatment. Just remember to keep your focus on them and their experience, and process your own feelings about it with someone else.

You can do this!

Parenting an adult child who has an eating disorder is probably not what you thought you would be doing at this stage in your life. But parenting has no end date. You are still one of the (if not the single) most important relationships in your child’s life. This may be a crossroads for your relationship. If you are able to rise up to the challenge, your child, and your relationship, will be stronger for it.

Here are some more things to consider when thinking about your adult child’s eating disorder:

Heredity

We see genetic similarities in people who have eating disorders. And it’s not uncommon for eating disorders to run in families. Twin studies have discovered that identical twins raised separately may share eating disorder behaviors.

But even if you don’t see anyone in your family tree who has an eating disorder, eating disorders rarely occur all by themselves. They are often accompanied by anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD, autism, and other disorders that involve emotional processing challenges.

Now, look at the tree. Do you see some similarities? Your child’s eating disorder is just one of many ways that people with certain genetic patterns learn to process emotions.

Society

Eating disorders are called “biopsychosocial” disorders, which means they combine biological (genetic), psychological, and social elements.

You simply can’t divorce eating disorders from our society. First, we live in a fatphobic diet culture. The thin body is promoted as “healthy” and “good.” While fatter bodies are considered “lazy” and “stupid.” The weight stigma in our culture is persistent and pervasive. From doctors’ offices to classrooms to sports fields, kids are taught to fear fat.

We also live in a culture that has a fair amount of foodphobia. For example, right now there’s a great deal of fear about sugar and “junk food.” Think of the preschool teacher who insists that kids only bring “healthy” snacks. And even though they come from the best intentions, these fears about food can create an environment in which disordered eating thrives.

There are many issues in our society that could be listed here. But I’ll end with the fact that our society shows very little support for parenting. As a result parents (mostly mothers) are overloaded and exhausted. Many are juggling the societal expectations of being a perfect woman, wife, mother, friend, and adult daughter to ailing parents. And that’s before we get to any career or school work.

American society makes it hard to be a good parent, and kids struggle not because their parents don’t care, but because the social structure and support just aren’t there.

Family Dynamics

Family dynamics make up a big part of the environment our kids grow up in. The first thing to know is that family dynamics are systems. No single person is responsible for the system. It’s never the case that one parent is perfect and the other parent is terrible. There is always a system at work. This system is driven by the parents’ inborn temperament, childhood experiences, and mental health.

And these things, of course, were influenced by the family dynamics we encountered when we were children. Sometimes you might see a direct link, but we more often see flip-flopping. People who were raised by domineering parents may lack structure and boundaries with their own kids. And people who were emotionally neglected as kids may become overly emotionally involved with their own kids.

And of course if we have a partner/spouse, additional children, in-laws, step-kids, half-siblings, etc., all of them influence family dynamics. Each person in the family plays a role and has an influence.

While we can’t do much to change genetics or society, we can make changes within our family dynamics to support a child who is in recovery from an eating disorder. And that can be your goal. Because your child is an adult and must pursue recovery for themselves, but you can help by improving your relationship with them and the family dynamics so they feel safe and secure when coming home to you.


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.