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Is it sugar addiction, an eating disorder, or something else?

Is it sugar addiction, an eating disorder, or something else?

Brandon has been worried about his son Michael for a few years. “He’s always been really into sugar, sweets, and junk food,” says Brandon. “I’ve tried to tell him he needs to avoid sugar. Telling him it’s bad for him doesn’t change anything. I’ve tried hiding the sweets, not buying sweets at all, and even punishing him for eating too many sweets. It seems like sugar addiction, or is it an eating disorder?”

I can understand where Brandon is coming from. There’s a lot of fear about sugar right now. In fact, there’s a lot of common knowledge saying that sugar is a direct cause of disease and weight gain. But the first thing to know is that scientifically sugar is a causal factor in tooth decay, but it is only correlated with other health issues. The truth about sugar is complex and nuanced. 

But the media hates nuance and loves a bad guy, and sugar is it right now. Most of us parents were raised to fear fat, but sugar has taken over as the new nutritional evil. Imagine if we’d heard about a butter board in 1998! The horror! Meanwhile, our “healthy” Snackwells fat-free cookies were loaded with sugar. Nutrition is subject to trends, so it’s a good idea to keep this in mind every time we meet a new nutritional bad guy.

It’s a matter of degree

Look, nobody’s saying we want our kids to eat only sugar all the time. That doesn’t make any sense. But there’s a huge distance between banning sugar and eating only sugar all the time. And that’s what I want to explore with Brandon. Just how often is Michael eating sugar? What’s happening when he eats sugar? Let’s tease this apart a little bit.

“I guess he eats sugar a few times a week,” says Brandon. “Since I rarely have sweets, cookies, and candy in the house now, it’s definitely a special occasion thing. For example, after baseball practice they always get a snack, and it’s often cookies or something like that. And of course there are birthday parties and family events. Stuff like that.” 

Brandon has banned sugary foods from the house. It sounds like he’s concerned about how Michael responds when he gets access to it out of the house.

“He goes crazy for the cookies,” says Brandon. “I see him taking more than his share and it’s embarrassing. And at family parties when there’s a cake, he’ll have two or three slices if I don’t stop him.” 

Got it. So the big question for Brandon is whether this is a sugar addiction or an eating disorder or something else. 

Is sugar addiction real?

I checked in with registered dietitian Marci Evans to find out more about sugar addiction. “I’ve been carefully watching the science of food addiction for years,” she says. “And aside from the fact that the “news” about sugar as an addictive substance sounds a lot like fear-mongering to me, it also doesn’t square with my clinical experience as a dietitian. My quick answer is that I don’t believe that sugar is addictive in the same way as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and other substances.”

Many dietitians, especially those who work with eating disorder populations, are deeply uncomfortable with the vilification of sugar in our culture. They don’t agree with the idea of sugar addiction. And they worry that fear of sugar can lead to an eating disorder.

“I think that the biggest issue with sugar is that, like everything, once a human is told that something is “off limits,” our brain kicks into deprivation mode,” says Marci. “I frequently hear people talking about food, including sugar, and telling me they feel as if they are addicted, by which they mean they feel they cannot stop themselves, and they would really like to stop. It’s important to note here that someone feeling as if they are addicted to something is not the same as being physically addicted to something.”

The body’s need for food is a biological necessity. The drive for food – including sugary food – is not the same as a drive for optional substances like alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine. Putting sugar in the same category as these substances is chemically inaccurate.

A behavioral addiction

But it’s also true that food can feel addictive. Behavioral addictions are an obsession with and compulsion to do a certain behavior. And eating can certainly become a behavioral addiction. But it’s important to separate behavioral addictions from substance addictions. This is because the treatment for substance addictions usually involves not taking the substance anymore. But most behavioral addictions require at least some continuation of the behavior. 

For example, an eating disorder may be viewed as a behavioral addiction. But recovery is not about never eating or always eating. It’s about finding balance in your approach to the behavior of eating. Recovery from a behavioral addiction is not about abstinence, but acceptance and modulation of urges and desires.

“So far, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that any food is addictive,” says Marci. “Humans must eat food to survive. No specific compounds have been found in food that are like the compounds found in drugs and alcohol. The human drive for food is considered adaptive, while the drive for addictive substances is considered maladaptive.”

What about the rat studies?

“But what about the research showing that rats get addicted to sugar?” asks Brandon. 

“There has been research showing that rodents consume sugar in an “addictive-like” way,” says Marci. “But this only occurs in settings that involve sugar restriction. This is critical because it is the reason I don’t promote restricting any food items, including sugar. When rats are kept in captivity and offered sugar on an intermittent basis, they exhibit binge-like eating, which researchers identify as addictive behavior. However, when the rats are offered sugar constantly, they do not exhibit this behavior, nor do they eat excessive amounts of sugar.”

“From my perspective, the study of the rats actually supports not vilifying sugar, since doing so can lead to binge behaviors that may look and feel like an addiction,” says Marci. “Again, there is no proof that this behavior is based on the substance itself, but rather the restriction of the substance.”

Ah! That is the key here. 

Sugar is compelling

Sugary foods are delicious and compelling for most people, especially children. But there are plenty of children and adults who eat sugar regularly without any signs of addiction or disordered eating. And the secret is that these people are allowed to eat sugar regularly. Without restriction, sugar is delicious, but it’s not compelling. It’s not an obsession or compulsion. We’ve seen this with rats. And dietitians who practice the Ellyn Satter method and/or Intuitive Eating see it every day, too. 

We’ve all seen the kids who dive for the cookies or brownies at the party. What makes them different from the kids who could take it or leave it? Usually it’s the amount of sugar restriction they’re experiencing at home. Because kids who have access to cookies regularly are not likely to feel obsessive, compulsive, or addicted to cookies. 

“Higher weight and binge eating disorder, both of which are frequently associated with “sugar addiction” are far more complex than any single food item,” says Marci. “What I see clinically is that food restriction is a more significant problem and a precursor to weight gain and eating disorders than sugar.”

Advice for Brandon

I can understand why Brandon is concerned about sugar addiction and the potential for an eating disorder. But Michael’s excited behavior around sugary foods is most likely being driven by restriction. We can’t rule out an eating disorder. But we do know that restricting foods at home is a risk factor for eating disorders. So I have some advice for Brandon: 

1. Relax the rules

First, relax your at-home rules around sugar. Remember there is a huge space between no sugar and only sugar. Introduce dessert occasionally or even every day and start normalizing sugary foods as part of a balanced diet. That’s right: sugar can be part of a very healthy diet. Incorporate sugar into your regular diet. This will remove the sense of restriction that may be driving the addicted-like behavior you’re seeing in Michael. 

2. Add in more nutrients, structure, and pleasure

Next, focus more on what you add than what you take away. I’ve said to incorporate sugary foods, but also seek ways to add in more nutritious foods. Expand your family’s daily intake of whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Now, add in is more structure around food and eating. Many families lack feeding structure. But structure has been shown to have a much greater impact on lifelong health than any diet. Do you have at least one family meal per day? If not, add that in! Finally, add in more pleasure! Eating is a social behavior in human beings. Enjoy food, enjoy eating, and enjoy each other.

3. Talk about balance

Once you’ve had sugar incorporated in your diet for a while, if Michael is still acting like he’s “addicted” to sugar, talk about specific behaviors you’re seeing. Make sure you’re coming from a neutral, non-judgmental standpoint. Michael may need help noticing that he is taking more than his share at practice. And maybe one piece of cake at the party is totally OK. But then he could add in something with greater nutritional value and then re-evaluate whether he wants a second slice. These conversations will go much better if you’re already modeling this behavior with sweets at home.

4. Stop food shaming

Finally, stop food shaming and any negative talk about food. All foods fit in a healthy diet. Brandon loves Michael and wants what’s best for him, but badmouthing food and calling it junk makes it feel restricted. We crave foods when they are restricted. When all foods are allowed, they are no longer worthy of obsession and compulsion. And never punish a child for eating. When you punish a child for seeking comfort and joy in food you support a disordered relationship with food that can have a lifetime impact on health.

Up for the challenge

It’s a lot to take in, but Brandon seems up for the challenge. “I can relate most of all to the kids who don’t get sugar at home grabbing all the cookies when they have a chance,” he says. “I remember kids like that when I was growing up. This one kid was on a really strict diet at home and he was seriously crazy about food. Give him access to pizza or M&Ms and he was all over it. The rest of us knew it was because he didn’t get it at home. I guess I’d forgotten about that until right now.”

Brandon’s going to give this advice a try and watch carefully for a reduction in the symptoms of sugar addiction and an eating disorder. Then we’ll re-evaluate whether there’s something more serious going on for Michael.

This is an update to an article published March 13, 2018 called “But, seriously, my kid is addicted to sugar. A discussion about sugar addiction with dietitian Marci Evans”

Marci Evans, MS, CEDRD, LDN, has dedicated her career to counseling, supervising, and teaching in the field of eating disorders. She is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Supervisor, certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and Certified ACSM personal trainer. In addition to her private practice and three adjunct teaching positions, Marci launched an online eating disorders training for dietitians in 2015 and is co-developing a specialized eating disorder internship at Simmons College.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.

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Reasons why a child might be emotional eating

Reasons why a child might be emotional eating

When you think your child is “emotional eating,” it typically raises red flags. Most parents worry that emotional eating will lead to weight gain and long-term health complications. Some parents worry that emotional eating is an early sign of an eating disorder. So let’s find out what emotional eating is, why it might be happening, and what you can do to help your child. 

What is emotional eating?

Typically when parents worry their child is emotional eating, they report these signs: 

  • Weight gain
  • Eating more than the parent thinks the child should need
  • Snacking a lot
  • The child craves carbs and sugar
  • Conversations in which the child says they can’t stop thinking about food or can’t stop eating
  • Post-eating bellyaches and bloating

If these are your concerns, I understand. Parenting around food and weight is tricky. But also, please be careful! Because if you label your child as an “emotional eater” you risk pathologizing hunger and not supporting your child’s lifelong health.

Emotional eating is considered a bad thing. Parents who say their kids are emotional eaters are worried about their physical and mental health. In our culture having “too much” hunger is greedy and enjoying “too much” food is pathological.

But all eating is emotional because physiological sensations, including hunger, trigger emotions. A lack of food creates an emotional state, most often irritation, anger and a drive to eat. This is biologically adaptive and not unique to your child. All mammals are wired to respond to the physical sensation of hunger with a craving for food and emotions like aggression or anger to help them acquire it. 

Think back to when your child was an infant. Your baby’s first demand was most likely for food. I would guess your baby felt hunger and displayed an emotional response like crying and looking mad to get your attention. When a baby feels hungry, they scrunch their face in anger and cry loudly to attract their parents’ attention and meet their needs. 

Now consider your infant’s emotional response to being fed breast milk or formula. You probably noticed a look of contentment, peace, even joy on your baby’s face when being fed. Eating is inherently emotionally pleasing – it’s meant to be! All mammals have an emotional response when they are hungry an an emotional response when they are fed.

Thus, feeding kids is inherently emotional, and we should avoid pathologizing a natural instinct or suggesting a mental health condition when there is none.

How you address your child’s emotional eating can make a huge difference. Your response may help them learn self-care and intuitive eating. Or it could lead them to adopt maladaptive behaviors like binge eating and restriction. This matters, so I’m glad you’re thinking about it!

The reasons your child is emotional eating

The usual reaction when a child is emotionally eating is to assume something is wrong with the child’s mental health. But often, the solution is far simpler than psychology. It’s most often structural and, therefore, within your control. Here are the main reasons your child may use emotional eating: 

1. Hunger

Hunger is a physiological symptom that triggers an emotional reaction. Think of the term “hangry,” which perfectly demonstrates what happens when a person is hungry. They get grumpy, angry, and have trouble concentrating. They will start to crave highly palatable foods like carbs and sugars because their blood sugar is dipping dangerously low. The first question to ask if your child is using emotional eating is whether they are getting enough food on a regular basis. If you’re unsure, please talk to a non-diet dietitian who can help you figure out how much food your child needs at this stage in their development. Most parents are surprised to find that it’s far more than they thought.

2. Lack of feeding structure

Emotional or chaotic eating is often due to a lack of feeding structure. When there is an inadequate feeding structure, the child’s hunger is out of balance, and they find themselves frequently hungry and dysregulated. Parents should serve kids food every 3-4 hours. This typically includes 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. Having a feeding structure eliminates almost all feeding issues and is the primary treatment for any type of eating disorder. Unless you begin with a solid structure, your child will continue exhibiting signs of emotional eating. 

3. Poor sleep hygiene

Sleep is essential for many reasons, including appetite regulation, digestion, and emotional regulation. Before you worry that your child has any sort of mental health issue or diagnose them with emotional eating, ensure that they have good sleep hygiene. Therapy and nutritional advice will not help a sleep-deprived child. Like a feeding structure, sleep is essential to physical and mental health. 

4. Emotional dysregulation

If all of the above conditions are met but your child is still emotionally eating, your child likely needs help with emotional regulation. It’s our job as parents to help our kids develop emotional regulation by co-regulating with them and building their emotional literacy throughout their lives. We can learn this skill and teach it to our kids. So once all the above conditions are met, emotional regulation is the next area to focus on. 

What can parents do to stop a child from emotional eating?

Most of the time, the best thing a parent can do to stop a child from emotional eating is to attend to our parental responsibilities. Make sure your child is getting enough food on a consistent schedule. Ensure they get the sleep they need with a stable bedtime. And finally, work with them on emotional regulation to help them label emotions and work through emotional dysregulation. 

Once that is covered, learn how to talk about food neutrally. This means not labeling food as good or bad. Instead, talk to your child about how to balance food to feel satisfied and avoid getting too hungry. For example, a meal should ideally include fat, carbs, protein, and fruit/vegetables. A snack should ideally include at least two of those elements. This simple model can help children learn to feed themselves in a way that keeps them satisfied for several hours and will reduce chaotic eating driven by hunger and the associated emotions.

Avoid cutting out food groups unless your child has a medically diagnosed allergy. It is common to restrict foods like wheat and sugar based on non-medical diagnosis, but this can lead to disordered eating for many children. The best diets are balanced and incorporate a variety of food from all food groups. They also include highly-palatable foods like cookies and chips as part of the variety.

This is the prescription for raising healthy children who can regulate their emotions and eat healthfully. It also prevents and treats most eating disorders.

What not to do if your child is emotional eating

Most parents address emotional eating in the wrong direction. They assume the problem lies in the child. Parents believe they should tell the child to eat less or educate them about nutrition and the dangers of weight gain. This is understandable, but it’s also not the right approach. 

Most children who are treated this way will feel shame about their bodies, their hunger, and their character. This could lead to restricting food, which exacerbates emotional eating, binge eating, and a cascade of disordered eating patterns that may develop into a full-blown eating disorder. 

Restricting food and intentional weight loss are culturally normalized behaviors. However, they do not result in improved health. 95% of people who intentionally lose weight gain it back, often plus more. The No. 1 predictor of weight gain is not how much food a person eats but how many times they have intentionally lost weight (i.e., dieted and weight cycled). Additionally, teens who diet have up to 15x greater chance of developing an eating disorder.

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Frequently asked questions about emotional eating

I know this is a fraught topic. It’s very hard to parent around food and body issues in our culture, which is toxic to both. Societal beliefs about eating and weight can get between you and raising a healthy child. So here are some answers to frequently asked questions about emotional eating:

1. But what about weight gain?

Children need to gain weight to grow and should continuously gain weight throughout their childhood and adolescence. If you are feeding your child regularly and serving them enough food, and they have good sleep hygiene and emotional regulation, their weight will sort itself out according to their genetic and environmental conditions. Any attempt to intentionally manipulate weight predicts weight gain and eating disorders.

2. But my child is already eating too much food

I encourage you to consult with a non-diet dietitian who can talk to you about the quantity and variety of food your child requires to be healthy. They can help you determine what to serve your child, how often, and when. This structural support will give you the confidence that your child is eating appropriately for their unique body.

3. My kid snacks on chips and cookies all the time but doesn’t eat meals

This is most likely a structural issue. The evidence-based feeding system called Division of Responsibility, developed by Ellyn Satter, lays out exactly how parents can set boundaries around meals and snacks. This includes a feeding schedule and providing adequate eating opportunities and a variety of food in a pleasant atmosphere. If you follow the Division of Responsibility, you will likely no longer have this problem.

4. My child only wants to eat carbs and sugar

See numbers 2 & 3 above. This problem will be resolved once you have the right structure in place.

5. My child says they can’t stop thinking about food or can’t stop eating

This indicates a preoccupation with food. The most likely culprit is a lack of feeding structure and hunger. Once you have addressed the structural issues, work on emotional regulation skills and emotional literacy. Is your child physiologically hungry or hungry for emotional care? Don’t ask them – just tune in and determine whether they need more emotional care from you. Make sure they are getting enough food on a regular schedule. If you’re sure it’s not physical hunger, then fulfill the emotional need. Our children are usually hungry for attention, affection, and acceptance. So give them more of that! 

6. My child eats to the point of having a bellyache or bloating

When a child gets too hungry, they will most likely feel discomfort after eating. So the first thing to address is the feeding schedule and ensuring that your child is eating enough food regularly throughout the day. If the structural issues are addressed, and your child is still eating beyond comfortable fullness, then examine what emotional need they are trying to fill with food. Are they lonely, tired, or sad? Give them more affection, attention, and acceptance throughout the day and particularly before and during meals so they are not trying to fill an emotional void with food. Get some parent coaching and support if you’re trying to do this and it’s not working.

7. What if it’s an eating disorder?

If you are concerned or suspect that your child’s emotional eating is an eating disorder, then please reach out for a diagnosis by a trained health professional, ideally who has extensive experience with eating disorders.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Affirmations for eating with an eating disorder

Affirmations for eating with an eating disorder

Eating can be really hard when you have an eating disorder, but affirmations can help. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, which means that we need to change our thoughts and beliefs in order to recover. This is where affirmations come in. Affirmations can help us replace our disordered thoughts with healthy thoughts. Over time, this can change the pattern of our thinking and support recovery.

Common thoughts and beliefs that drive eating disorders are:

  • If I eat too much I’ll feel sick and/or gain weight
  • I can’t eat food/carbs/sugar etc.
  • Exercise is required to “burn off” food calories
  • There are some foods that are good and some that are bad
  • I can’t trust my body to make healthy choices for me
  • I’m not hungry
  • That’s too much food for me right now

These thoughts all make sense because we live in diet culture, which perpetuates them all the time. But we can overcome these false beliefs and thoughts with affirmations that counteract the eating disorder thoughts and lead us towards health and recovery.

Having an eating disorder can make it really hard to eat regularly and trust your body to be healthy. Recovery doesn’t happen with affirmations alone, but parents can support recovery by teaching their kids eating disorder recovery affirmations. Here are nine affirmations you can teach your child who has an eating disorder:

1. My body needs food every day no matter what I do

My body needs food. And it’s not just that I need food when I exercise. I need food even if all I do all day is sit on the couch. My brain, lungs, heart, and every organ in my body need food every single day just to exist. My body needs me to eat food every day. Food is the best, most essential, and healthy thing my body needs.

2. All foods are good foods

Even though there is a lot of misleading information about food out there, I know that all foods are good foods. Unless it’s moldy or expired, all food is clean. It’s not better to eat a salad instead of a burger if what I really want is a burger. What I eat should be based on what my body wants and needs, not what someone else has told me is “healthy” or “good.” Right now I need to trust my dietitian and my parents to help me make the right choices for my body. Over time, I’ll learn to listen to my body, which will guide me to eat exactly what I need every day. 

3. I can be afraid to eat and choose to eat anyway

Eating is scary for me right now. It makes sense – I mean, I have an eating disorder! But just because I’m afraid to eat doesn’t mean that I won’t eat. From now on I’m going to feel my fear and eat anyway. Trying to get rid of my fear will never work, but showing my fear that I can eat even when I’m afraid of it will help me feel stronger every day. Fear gets to exist in my mind, but I will not allow it to drive my decisions or put my health at risk.

4. I never need to burn off my food with exercise

My mind thinks that every time I eat, I need to work it off with exercise. And that thought keeps coming up for me, but I know it’s not true. Exercise is healthy as long as it’s not being used as a punishment or way to purge what I’ve eaten. Right now I need to take a break from exercising while I recover, but that doesn’t mean I need to eat less because I’m not exercising. I can’t wait until I’m exercising before I eat more food. That’s just not how bodies work. Exercise is not the price we pay for eating.

5. My body is perfectly capable of digesting food

A lot of times I feel as if I won’t be able to handle the food I eat. I worry that I’ll gain weight, that I’ll vomit, that I’ll feel nauseous, and that I’ve eaten the wrong thing or too much. All of these worries show up in my head, but that’s OK. I’m still going to eat with the knowledge that my body can digest so many things. Sure, if my doctor has diagnosed an allergy I won’t eat those things, but otherwise, I’m going to follow my dietitian’s and parents’ advice about what to eat and how much.

6. I can’t really trust my hunger and fullness cues right now, but I will if I keep eating

Right now my hunger and fullness cues are all over the place. With my eating disorder, I put my mind in charge of my body, and it’s kind of messed with my body’s natural signals. But that’s OK. I know that if I keep practicing and eating what my dietitian and parents tell me is good for me then I will slowly rebuild my brain-body connection. Over time, I’ll relearn how to listen to my body and will be able to eat intuitively, without fear, and according to my appetite.

7. My body does not need to be oppressed to be good enough

For whatever reason, I decided that my mind needs to take control of what my body needed. I’ve been treating my body’s signals like they’re naughty children who need to be dominated and controlled. But I don’t want to do that anymore. I’ve become a dictator, an oppressor! I want to treat my body with the respect and dignity it deserves. My body is strong and wants me to be healthy. My body doesn’t need to be a certain weight or shape to be good enough. It’s already good enough. Over time I will learn to listen to my body, but right now I’m going to stop oppressing it with food rules.

8. Counting calories may feel safe to me right now, but it’s not a healthy way to live

I’ve become a master of calorie counting. It happens automatically for me every time I eat or think about food. But this catalog of calorie counts is not making me healthier. It’s part of my eating disorder. Every time I start to count calories I’m going to ask my brain to stop doing that. I mean, I understand that my brain thinks counting calories will keep me safe, but I’m not buying it anymore.

9. Just because I don’t want to eat doesn’t mean I shouldn’t eat

Right now it makes sense that I don’t want to eat most of the time – I have an eating disorder! And eating has become a huge hassle and drama in my life. But I know that if I eat what and when I’m supposed to, I’ll recover from this eating disorder and won’t need to force myself anymore. So I’m going to keep remembering that even though I don’t want to eat most of the time, I’m going to do it anyway. My body really needs food, and I’m tired of my eating disorder hurting my health and controlling my life.

These affirmations should help your child gain confidence in eating disorder recovery. Recovery takes time, but repeating these affirmations supports the process of building new beliefs and thoughts. 

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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9 ways to accidentally sabotage your kids’ relationship with food

9 ways to accidentally sabotage your kids' relationship with food
And 1 way to raise a child who is free from food issues

If you want to raise a child who is free from food issues, then it’s time to stop sabotaging their relationship with food. Eating disorders are on the rise, and disordered eating is so common that it’s considered normal. 

But true health is found when a person eats according to their preferences and appetite and knows that their body weight will settle into the range it wants to be. This range is often not the same as the range our society deems acceptable or desirable, which is why food and eating have become so fraught. 

Parents who want to raise healthy kids who are free from food issues and eating disorders have to work hard to counterbalance the cultural misinformation about food and eating, which is driven by the $72 billion diet industry. 

But the effort is well worth it. Kids who are raised with food freedom and body peace are healthier and happier. 

Here are nine ways you may accidentally be sabotaging your kids’ relationship with food:

1. Describe food as good or bad

Kids have a simplistic way of responding to parental guidance. When you set up a hierarchy of food, they assume that if they eat/crave good foods then they (as a person) are good. But if they eat/crave bad foods then they (as a person) are bad. This sets them up for a complicated and disordered relationship with food and poor self-worth.

Instead of doing this, make all food choices morally neutral.

2. Talk about other people’s food choices

When you talk about what other people eat as either good or bad, you’re telling your child what you believe is acceptable and unacceptable. They will automatically apply your opinions about other people’s eating behavior to themselves and believe they can show you their goodness (or badness) through food behaviors.

Instead of doing this, keep your eyes on your own plate and don’t talk about other people’s food choices.

It is completely false that weight is as simple as calories in/calories out. Many people who are smaller eat more calories than people who are larger. Bodies have vastly different metabolic processes, and bodies are naturally diverse in weight. When parents perpetuate the myth that weight is within a person’s control, they set a child up for restriction, which causes harm.

Instead of doing this, tell kids that all bodies are unique, and we should never make assumptions about people based on their weight. Read more

4. Reward good behavior with dessert

Dessert should be available based on your preferences, your kids’ preferences, and lots of other factors. But it shouldn’t be given or restricted based on a child’s behavior. Children are not animals. We have much more complex neural structures, and simple food-based reward systems quickly go awry.

Instead of doing this, offer dessert as often as you feel makes sense, regardless of your kids’ behavior.

5. Punish bad behavior by canceling dessert

When parents use food as a punishment, kids suffer. Food should be given according to preference and appetite, not behavior. Withholding food for bad behavior can have long-lasting impacts on a child’s relationship with food.

Instead of doing this, talk to your child about any behavior you don’t like, but don’t link it to food in any way.

6. Praise kids for making “good choices”

Kids should choose food based on what tastes good, what they want in the moment, and what is available to them. When we moralize the food they choose, we set them up to see food as a reward or punishment, good or bad. Kids who are given a full range of choices will naturally cover their nutritional needs and settle into a healthy weight for their unique body.

Instead of doing this, talk about how food tastes and how much you enjoy sharing food with them.

7. Tell kids they need to limit sugar, carbs, or any other food type

When we restrict food, the most common outcome is binge eating that food. Kids who are not allowed to eat sugar will binge eat sugar. Same with carbs and other foods that are tasty and restricted. Parents who allow all foods notice that their kids rarely (if ever) binge eat because they trust they can always have more.

Instead of doing this, offer a wide variety of foods regularly.

8. Make kids eat their vegetables before they eat anything else

Making kids eat vegetables before they eat anything else is a form of parental control. While parents should be in charge of the options available to their kids, they should not dictate which foods go in their kids’ bodies or in which order they eat it. Dangerous power struggles are much more likely in families where food is controlled.

Instead of doing this, let your child choose the order in which they eat their food.

9. Tell kids their future health is based on what they eat

Telling kids that their health is directly tied to what they eat is factually wrong and harmful. The greatest impacts on mortality and health are genes and environment, neither of which is within a person’s control. Specific food choices have no direct connection to health, but a positive relationship with food is linked to better health.

Instead of doing this, provide your child with an emotionally connected home environment that will support their physical and mental health for life. 

The 1 way to raise a child who is free from food issues

The best way to raise a child who is free from food issues is to trust kids to feed themselves the right mix of food based on what you offer them and gain weight according to their unique body’s blueprint. 

Our culture wants to prescribe a one-size-fits-all meal plan and moralize about good and bad foods. But that ends up being controlling and unhelpful. Trust the body and the appetite to make the right choices for your child’s unique circumstances. 

Our culture also likes to prescribe a narrow weight range for every single body. This is despite the fact that we know that body diversity is natural and expected in any population. We see body diversity even when everyone eats the same things. 

To raise a child who is free from food issues, trust your child’s body to grow according to its unique blueprint, and avoid any food restriction or moralization. 

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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How to avoid power struggles over food

How to avoid power struggles over food

Many parents wonder how they can avoid power struggles over food. Feeding and eating have become very tense in our culture. Food is often restricted, moralized, and made “super,” making it very hard for parents to know what they should do.

The good news is that feeding doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be important. What do I mean by that? I mean that you should prioritize feeding your children as an essential part of caring for them. But feeding should be about connection, not correction. And it should be about being together, not being perfect or eating perfectly (since there’s no such thing!).

Eating and feeding are intimate forms of communication between parent and child. When a child is rejecting food, avoiding eating with others, or eating alone, that can be troublesome and even dangerous. So it’s important for parents to “own” meals. To take responsibility for feeding their kids and prioritize connection and loving communication during meals.

When parents step into their authority by choosing the times and format of meals, they show that feeding and eating are an important part of their role as parents. Feeding our children thoughtfully and with respect is an important part of parenting and showing them our love and care.

Here’s how to avoid power struggles over food:

Note: for each point, I’ve added a brief description of how this works for one family that’s doing it.

1. Have family meals

Make meals an important part of daily life. Food is the first way we show our children we are attentive to them, and feeding serves as an important bonding experience for both parent and child. Don’t let this drop away as they grow up. Eating together should be a family priority, and should be taken very seriously.

What this looks like for Allison’s family: We have busy schedules but we always make time to eat dinner together. We avoid planning meetings, events, and calls from 6:30-7:30. Sometimes we have to eat earlier, sometimes later. But whatever our day brings, we prioritize getting together for dinner.

2. Serve food you know your child will like

Don’t be a short-order cook who makes individual meals for each person. But do make sure that there is always something you are sure each person will eat. Good options include bread and butter, tortillas, a bowl of fruit, baby carrots, etc.

What this looks like for Allison’s family: I’m a creative cook, and I enjoy trying new recipes. But I always make sure there is at least one dish for everyone on the table. For our family, everyone likes tortillas and cheese, so I’ll put that on the table in case the meal I’ve prepared isn’t appealing. I also keep a bowl of fruit on the table just in case.

3. Let everyone serve themselves

Family-style meals provide individual autonomy and choice. This allows each person to feel cared for, in community with the family, and responsible for their own choices. This can eliminate harmful food-based power struggles since everyone is in charge of themselves.

What this looks like for Allison’s family: We eat at the table and I serve everything family style. This way everyone feels as if they are in charge of their own plate, which seems to reduce tensions. Sometimes my kids actually ask me to put a plate together for them, which is fine. But our default is that they get to make their own choices.

4. Keep your eyes on your own plate

Don’t watch what your child is eating or make comments about their choices. Let them eat what they like and how much they like at each meal. Put them in charge of their own nutrition, and empower them to know their body best.

What this looks like for Allison’s family: I was raised in a family where every bite was monitored and I felt bad for either eating too much or not finishing what was on my plate. So that feels pretty natural to me. But I’ve found that since I stopped doing that with my own kids, they seem more relaxed, and I’ve noticed that there’s a lot less waste and grumbling as a result. And they’re even more adventurous, which really surprised me.

5. Keep the conversation light, bright, and polite

Don’t make the table the only place where parent-child conversations take place. Make space for difficult conversations about homework, tests, and other concerns away from the table. During meals, keep the conversation positive and strive to make each person feel seen, heard, understood, and loved. This is a time for connection, not correction.

What this looks like for Allison’s family: We used to spend most of our time at meals managing the household, making sure everything got done and setting up our schedule for the next day. Now we save that for after dinner, and instead, we focus on being together and laughing and sharing stories during dinner. It’s so much more pleasant and I notice the kids linger around the table now instead of rushing to get back to their phones. We end up spending a lot more time together, and it’s much more high-quality.

Feeding without drama

Remember that what parents repeatedly do matters more than what they say. Often parents think they need to instruct children about how to eat and what to eat. But it’s more important to show them that food is important. That our bodies deserve respect and kindness. And, most importantly, that food is something to be enjoyed and savored together.

How you feel about your child matters. If you worry about your child’s eating, they will sense it. This is particularly true if you believe they eat “too much” or only “unhealthy” food. Before you sit down to a meal together, find a space inside of yourself that trusts and believes in your child’s autonomy and ability to eat in a way that serves them. Yes, this requires a leap of faith, but no more so than the leap of faith it takes us to send them off to school or teach them to drive. Autonomy is essential to raising a self-sufficient, healthy person.

What you prioritize matters. When you prioritize feeding and eating as something to be honored and treated with respect, you set your child up for a healthy relationship with food for life.

Family meals are a great place to show your values to your kids. This is where you can show them that you value connection, community, and eating. It’s where you can show them you value respect, autonomy, and togetherness. The family meal offers amazing opportunities for parenting.

Meals should be a place where everyone feels safe and cared for. When that happens, you are more likely to avoid power struggles over food.

This advice is based on interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory. The particular feeding method outlined is called the Ellyn Satter Divison of Responsibility, an evidence-based approach to feeding that is shown to prevent eating issues, power struggles, and food battles.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Food myths that get in the way of healthy eating

Food Myths That Get in the Way of Healthy Eating

by Lauren Dorman, RD CDE

Our society is overflowing with food myths that interfere with healthy eating. Half-truths and outright misinformation about nutrition and health are everywhere. Too many of us believe in myths—faulty, inaccurate, and downright untrue things about the food we eat.  

When working with families, I want them to understand that I am not going to “fix” a body or track a scale number as progress. It is studied and proven that this way of thinking will likely lead to disordered eating and poor health outcomes. In fact, restriction and weight-based care is most likely to create a poor relationship with food in which you feel addicted or obsessed to foods and yo-yo dieting. Things go much better when I help children and their families understand what a healthy relationship with food means and that all bodies are good bodies. 

This is a different concept for many as the world we live in focuses more on the “thin ideal” and “less guilt” food choices. Have you taken a look at magazine covers lately?  They are filled with the $70 billion diet culture messaging. 

I teach all the families I work with to know that all of this is harmful and poor advice.  I help them unlearn many false beliefs about nutrition and they begin to approach health as an entirely different, sustainable way of living. 

Diets are dangerous

A 2016 study of 181 mother-daughter pairs found that girls whose mothers were on diets were more likely to start dieting themselves before age 11. And that dieting was associated with overeating, weight gain and chronic health issues.

Studies and research such as these are the reasons most Registered Dietitians educate on a “food neutral” approach. This means that instead of focusing on healthy foods, ask your child “how does the food make you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally?”  

Pressuring your kids to eat their vegetables backfires most of the time, and in many different ways. Parents can have different discussions about the foods which can make mealtimes less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone!

A focus on health-promoting and intuitive eating for kids has shown so many positive benefits, including improved body satisfaction, lower rates of emotional eating, higher self-esteem, weight stabilization, improved cholesterol levels and reduced stress levels.  If we have a neutral approach to food we can find this whole nutrition thing a whole lot simpler! 

As a Registered Dietitian who doesn’t promote or engage in dieting, one of the first things I do with clients is figure out which of these myths they believe. Then I tell them the truth. 

Here are four of the most common food myths that get in the way of healthy eating:

Myth 1: There are good foods and bad foods

That’s simply not true. A few readers may find that shocking, but the reality is this: Food does not have a moral value. Some foods have fewer nutrients and others have more—but all food is just food, neither good nor bad. Unless you are allergic to something, there is no reason not to eat it. If you avoid certain foods and feel you shouldn’t have them, you will typically crave them more. Give yourself permission to eat all food and your craving for ‘forbidden foods’ will diminish. By eating widely and thoughtfully, you will end up eating a balanced variety of foods. 

Myth 2: Healthy people don’t eat carbohydrates

This is dangerous and potentially harmful. In fact, scientific research confirms that all human bodies, in order to function properly, need carbohydrates. I have reviewed many food diaries where people eat only eggs in the morning, a salad at lunch, and broccoli and chicken at dinner. For all of these clients, I recommend adding a source of carbohydrates to each of these meals to meet their energy and health goals. Almost everyone feels better and more satisfied when eating a balanced meal.

Myth 3: Don’t eat after 7pm 

I can assure you that what you eat in the evening will not magically cause harm or weight gain. One client told me that a teacher advised him to adopt this rule a few years ago, and that ever since he feels shame if he eats a late meal. If you are hungry, your body is asking you for food; it does not matter what time it is. Enjoy and nourish yourself.

Myth 4: Skinny people are the healthiest

Health is not determined by weight. Our society’s relentless focus on what the scale says damages countless people and doesn’t make anyone healthier. Too many people disrupt their physical and mental health by allowing a number on the scale to determine their self-worth. So many other actions that determine your health don’t rely on numbers like pounds or body-mass index (BMI). From my point of view, tossing the scale is a good way to improve your physical and mental health. We all accept that people come in different heights and shoe sizes. Why is it so hard to accept that bodies, too, come in different sizes? 

Raising a healthy family

It’s possible to raise healthy kids by ignoring the four food myths that get in the way of eating. First, don’t label foods as good or bad. All foods can fit in a healthy diet. Next, eat carbohydrates. The human body needs and thrives on carbohydrates, and they can be enjoyed at every meal. Also, you can eat after 7 p.m. or any other arbitrary time diet culture has set. Bodies can digest food 24×7. Finally, remember that weight does not determine health. Get rid of the scale and focus on habits that truly promote health and wellness.

Lauren Dorman, RD, CDE specializes in helping families, chronic dieters, and people with diabetes through her virtual private practice. She also provides a workshop “Imperfectly Healthy”.  To learn more, follow her on Instagram @dont_diet_dietitian_ or email

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Are you food shaming your child? You’ve got to stop!

Are you food shaming your child

Food shaming your child is a common practice, but it can harm their health. I say this because I know that most parents who food-shame are actually trying to improve their kids’ health.

Due to frustrating cultural conditioning, many of our instinctual approaches to raising healthy kids actually backfire. Parents who want to raise healthy kids are told to restrict and manage kids’ food, but unfortunately, food restriction is associated with binge eating, sneak eating, emotional eating, and full-blown eating disorders.

Also, food restriction contributes to weight gain. That’s right. Intentional weight loss (e.g. dieting) is not only ineffective, but it does the opposite of what’s intended. I’m not anti-fat or against bodies gaining weight, but I say this because the thing everyone believes will help them lose weight and/or stay small (dieting and restricting) actually has the opposite effect!

What is food shaming?

Food shaming is something that happens when a parent or other person makes a judgment or criticism of what a child is eating. Common food-shaming comments include drawing attention to:

  • How much someone is eating (e.g. “too much”)
  • What specifically someone is eating (e.g. “only sugar,” “all carbs,” “junk food”)

These comments typically stem from popular culture, which generally believes that people who eat certain ways are either “good” or “bad.” These beliefs have been intentionally created by the diet industry, which has a basic template for marketing its diet programs.

Marketing Campaigns That Sell Diet Programs & Products All Say:

  1. People who lose weight are good and healthy
  2. Eating “the right way” will result in weight loss
  3. This program makes it easy by eliminating ____________ (calories, fat, carbs, sugar, etc.)

These marketing messages have been promoted by the diet industry to great success. And our culture believes them, even though they simply are not true. Weight loss is not effective or healthy. But the weight loss industry has thrived nonetheless and created a culture of parents that instinctually use food shaming without realizing the harm it causes.

The intention of food shaming is typically to help the child. But the impact of food shaming is to humiliate the child and make them feel ashamed of their appetite and desires. Simply put: there’s nothing healthy about that.

Eating disorders, restriction and control

Many people who have/had eating disorders recall being food-shamed by their parents. These people had parents who truly wanted to help their kids. But we live in a society that, egged on by the powerful diet and food industries, tells us that food is either “good” or “bad.” This message is everywhere, and it’s incorrect.

There is significant research demonstrating that Intuitive Eating, a method of eating without following “food rules” but rather focusing on hunger and appetite cues, is the healthiest approach for the body and mind. An intuitive approach to eating with zero weight goals or expected weight outcomes is protective against eating disorders, the second most deadly mental disorder.

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

  • Don’t label food good or bad
  • Don’t make moral judgments about food
  • Pay attention to your child’s hunger, not caloric counts or other external measures 
  • Be aware that food is more than fuel – it is also comfort (and that’s OK)
  • Don’t recommend against eating for fear of weight gain
  • Don’t assume your child needs to eat less or weigh less 

Examples of food shaming

We ran an informal survey on Instagram and asked people for examples of how their parents food-shamed them. The results were sad, but not surprising. Here are some examples of childhood food-shaming experiences:

  • When I was 9, my mom gave me a teacup and a teacup saucer and told me all of my meals should either fit in the teacup or on the plate. I was nine years old.
  • When I was your age I only ate salads.
  • I think you’ve had enough brownies/cake /cookies/peanut butter/crackers.
  • The problem with kids today is that they eat so much more than we did.
  • Anytime I wanted to eat ANYTHING my dad would say “oh you don’t want that!”
  • At your size, you really need to stop eating that kind of food.
  • Really? You’re eating that much?
  • Really? You’re getting more?
  • You know where that goes.
  • You weigh how much? And you’re eating THAT?
  • I was deceitful for saying I planned on splitting my Panda Express and then mom threw the whole meal in the trash.
  • When they shamed their own food choices and body shape. I learned to do the same.
  • You can’t possibly be hungry.
  • My mom used the Bible (Adam and Eve) to shame me when I was sneaking maraschino cherries from the fridge because I loved them so much.
  • A moment on your lips, a lifetime on your hips.
  • That’s a lot of food you have on your plate!
  • Your prom dress would look better if you lost 10 lbs.
  • I know you love to stuff your face.
  • Your brother can order four-cheese pasta, but not you.
  • I suggested we make brownies. They said I think about food “too much” and should see a therapist.

Shame is not healthy

Parents who food shame their kids often think they are trying to improve health, but shame itself is damaging to health. Shame can have a significant negative impact and is associated with eating disorders, substance abuse, and many behavioral addictions.

What is shame? Shame is often used as an umbrella term to indicate a variety of emotions ranging from embarrassment to searing mortification. It happens when an individual feels they are at risk of being excluded from a critical social group. It is especially dangerous in family groups, which are essential to a child’s health, safety, and well-being. Unlike guilt, which is feeling bad about an action, shame is feeling bad about who you are as a person.

Belonging to social groups, particularly a family group, is critical to human health. Therefore, feeling shame within one’s family group can be devastating. shame is associated with low self-esteem, hostility, and psychological distress. This is particularly true of body-based shame. [1]

Also, shaming people for behaviors backfires. For example, being shamed for drinking increases problem behaviors for someone who has alcoholism. [2] Many people who are shamed for eating find themselves binge eating or eating uncontrollably in response.

How food shaming hurts

We can see this reflected in our survey. Respondents reported that parental food shaming encouraged them to develop problems with binge eating.

  • I started to not want to eat in front of them, which led to my binge eating disorder. Internalized fatphobia, food labeling, and guilt around food in general was the norm. I don’t think I’ll ever have a healthy relationship with food thanks to their hypervigilance.
  • I binge eat a lot. Alone, in the dark. Even now that I’m an adult with a supportive partner.
  • I started bingeing in secret so they couldn’t shame me.
  • Binge eater, secret eater, emotional eater.

For others, parental food shaming led to severe restriction and a full-blown eating disorder.

  • I saw them food shaming my sisters so I decided to survive on rice and Diet Coke.
  • Developed bulimia and binge eating disorder and struggled with it for 15 years.
  • Being food-shamed led me to a long road of restriction instead of trusting my body.
  • I struggled with an eating disorder for 8 years.
  • I developed an eating disorder which eventually led to psychiatric hospitalization.
  • Food shaming was a big reason for my eating disorders.

Most of all, respondents say that parental food shaming led to an unhealthy relationship with food.

  • I’m now 31 and still associate food with shame, love, anxiety, and worthlessness.
  • I still feel the need to tell people why I”m eating certain food when I’m eating.

What to do if you have food shamed your kids

If you recognize that you have been food-shaming your kids, then take a deep breath. It can be surprising to hear that something you did with the best intentions was harmful. And the good news is that you can make amends to your child. While you can’t erase what is already done, you can attempt to repair the damage.

The best way to get started and help your child be truly healthy is to own up to your mistakes.

Once you can see that you have been food-shaming your child and understand that it is hurtful, you can begin repairing your relationship. The key is to open a conversation without getting defensive or critical of your child. It’s hard to get vulnerable, but it can have a huge impact on your child.

Before you begin, here are a few ground rules for a conversation about food shaming:

  • Understand that food shaming is not helpful and is in fact harmful
  • Recognize that your child’s body is their own, and they get to decide what food they eat (not you)
  • Learn about the harmful diet culture messages we’ve learned that say food is good or bad and that we must be thin to be healthy

An apology script

Once you are ready, you can open a conversation with your child. Here’s an outline for how to approach this:

  • Acknowledge that food shaming was a mistake on your part.
  • Say that you are going to work on not food shaming in the future.
  • Ask your child to tell you in the future if they believe you are food 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 nutritional content, caloric values, weight, diet, etc.
  • Conduct more research and, if necessary, consult with a non-diet dietician so that you can learn about how to prevent eating disorders by learning about weight and diets.

Learning to stop vilifying food and shaming people for eating what they enjoy takes time. Just keep trying! Showing up is half the battle.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

[1] Garofalo, C., Bottazzi, F. & Caretti, V. (2016). Faces of shame: Implications for self-esteem, emotion regulation, aggression, and well-beingJournal of Psychology

[2] Randles, D. & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Nonverbal displays of shame predict relapse and declining health in recovering alcoholicsClinical Psychological Science

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Intuitive Eating to prevent and treat eating disorders

It is possible to prevent and treat eating disorders. New research suggests that Intuitive Eating may help. A recent study found that teens who eat intuitively have better mental health outcomes and eating habits as adults.

This is important, because most of our kids are not being raised with Intuitive Eating principles. As a culture, we largely embrace non-intuitive eating. Most people follow restrictive diets rather than our body’s intuition.

Study finds Intuitive Eating beneficial for health

Researchers with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health studied people who ate intuitively as teenagers. They found that teens who scored higher on an Intuitive Eating scale were less likely to experience depression and disordered eating as adults. Specifically, the study found that teens who used Intuitive Eating had:

  • Fewer depressive symptoms
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Lower body dissatisfaction
  • Fewer unhealthy weight control behaviors (e.g. fasting, skipping meals)
  • Lower rates of extreme weight control behaviors (e.g. eating disorder behaviors)
  • Less chance of binge eating (71%)

The data applied both to teens who scored higher in Intuitive Eating at the beginning of the study and those who became more intuitive over the course of the study.

The authors concluded that Intuitive Eating in adolescence predicts better psychological and behavioral health across a range of outcomes. They also suggest that Intuitive Eating may be a positive intervention for people who are at risk of or have eating disorders. This is based on the findings that teens who used Intuitive Eating were 74% less likely to develop Binge Eating Disorder.

Preventing and treating eating disorders

This is the latest in numerous scientific articles that have found value in using the principles of Intuitive Eating. The approach appears to help prevent and treat eating disorders. This is important, because eating disorders and disordered eating are both on the rise. And both can have lifelong mental and physical health impacts. If Intuitive Eating can prevent eating disorders, that’s a big deal.

Intuitive Eating is most likely effective because it counter-balances diet culture messages. These messages say that we can and should control our body weight. Diet culture has grown on the wings of the diet industry. The diet industry exploded from $10 billion in annual revenue in 1985 to almost $70 billion in 2012.

In that time, human body weights have not gone down, but eating disorders and disordered eating have increased. Sadly, diet company profit goals play a huge role in our lives. This is despite zero evidence that their programs are effective, safe, or improve health outcomes.

Intuitive Eating may prevent eating disorders because it actively works against the diet culture promoted by the diet industry. It specifically teaches people to recognize and reject diet culture. Diet culture marketing says we can lose weight fast and keep it off for life. But Intuitive Eating teaches us to listen to and trust our own bodies.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating was introduced by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S in 1995. Their bestselling book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach is now in its fourth edition. Intuitive Eating is defined as rejecting restrictive diet patterns and instead eating according to feelings of hunger and fullness.

The authors define Intuitive Eating as following these 10 principles:

10 principles of Intuitive Eating

  1. Reject the diet mentality: stop using diet books, influencers and blog posts that offer you false hope. No matter what they say, there’s no evidence that you can lose weight quickly, easily, and permanently.
  2. Honor your hunger: hunger is a biological instinct, just like blinking, using the bathroom or feeling thirsty. We accept almost all biological instincts except hunger. When you honor your biological hunger drive, you can rebuild trust in yourself around food.
  3. Make peace with food: end foodphobia forever. Stop fearing fat, carbs, sugar, and any other foods. The fear of food keeps you locked in a battle with eating, which is both natural and necessary.
  4. Challenge the food police: parents, doctors, teachers, coaches, the media, influencers, and peers have all influenced us. They have built an inner dialogue of what we think of as “good” and “bad” food. Stop listening to the voices in your head and instead listen to your body’s natural drive for food.
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor: it’s become easy to forget that food and eating are supposed to be pleasurable. Instead of being afraid of eating, rediscover the satisfaction you get from food.
  6. Feel your fullness: Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Now you can tune into your natural fullness, which often has been masked by rules and requirements of diet culture.
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness: food can be a comfort. But food shouldn’t be the only way you respond to uncomfortable emotions. Learn to be mindful and comfort yourself through uncomfortable emotions.
  8. Respect your body: understand that your body has a blueprint. This is genetically based on the same factors as your shoe size. It’s also influenced by past efforts to intentionally lose weight. Trust that your body will find the weight that it wants to be (not that you want it to be).
  9. Movement – feel the difference: diet culture pushes an aggressive fitness regimen that can leave us feeling depleted and depressed. Focus on enjoying exercise and movement and honoring rest when you need it.
  10. Honor your health – gentle nutrition: remember that your health is not dependent on any single meal or day. You can trust that your body will naturally seek good nutrition if you are following these principles.

What it’s not

The rise of Intuitive Eating and the many studies showing the health impacts of Intuitive Eating have led to many people claiming their diet is Intuitive Eating even when it clearly is not. Here are some common ways that Intuitive Eating is being used to sell and promote dieting:

Claim: Intuitive Eating will help you lose weight

Truth: weight loss is never the goal of Intuitive Eating. Anything or anyone that promotes Intuitive Eating as a weight loss method is definitively not actually using Intuitive Eating.

Claim: Intuitive Eating just means eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full and you won’t gain weight

Truth: Intuitive Eating is more complex than this. And there is never a goal of controlling weight or avoiding weight gain. That’s diet mentality and therefore not Intuitive Eating.

Claim: Intuitive Eating means you never eat when you aren’t hungry

Truth: many times you will need to feed yourself mindfully before you get hungry to accommodate your schedule. This doesn’t go against Intuitive Eating framework, but is commonly incorrectly presented as the reason why Intuitive Eating is not a realistic lifestyle.

Claim: Intuitive Eating is about eating whatever you want, so it’s not healthy

Truth: Intuitive Eating has been shown to result in better health across many dimensions because it removes food rules and lets the body drive eating patterns. Contrary to popular belief (i.e. diet culture), a body will naturally select a wide range of foods to fit its nutritional needs.

There are many false claims about Intuitive Eating. The best thing is to read the book or find a trained dietitian to make sure you get the correct approach rather than one of the many false approaches.

Diet culture is bad for health

Diet culture has worked hard to convince us that we can’t trust our bodies. Every diet message preaches that our bodies need to be controlled, and our urges for food, rest, and pleasure, need to be eliminated. This is the opposite of Intuitive Eating, and it may be why it can help prevent eating disorders.

Diets restrict food and pleasure, and they all promise that it’s easy and fun to take weight off and keep it off for life. But the data consistently shows that lasting intentional weight loss is virtually impossible for 90-95% of people.

Today’s diets intentionally avoid focusing on how the body looks, saying instead that the main goal of dieting is increased health. But the data don’t support the idea that diets are good for our health. In fact, diets are proven to increase cortisol and decrease metabolism. They have not demonstrated any health improvements. Finally, the most common outcome of intentional weight loss is weight cycling, which is recognized as bad for our health.

In other words, there is no evidence that diets are effective at anything other than reducing our health.

How parents can teach their kids healthy eating

Parents who want healthy kids now have even more evidence that Intuitive Eating is a solid approach to food and eating. Rather than try to control our bodies and force a particular diet, we should follow our intuition and trust our bodies.

Parents can help their kids learn Intuitive Eating by:

  1. Stop dieting
  2. Don’t allow kids to diet
  3. Learn Intuitive Eating for yourself
  4. Talk about the Intuitive Eating principles as a family
  5. Recognize diet culture and talk about its impact as a family
  6. Encourage your child(ren) to listen to their bodies, honor their hunger and fullness, and avoid food restrictions not based on allergies or serious medical conditions (“obesity” doesn’t count)
  7. Learn emotional literacy and work with your child(ren) to talk about feelings freely
  8. Move together in ways that feel good and make you all happy

Parents can make a huge impact on kids’ lifelong health. When we teach our kids Intuitive Eating, we can help prevent eating disorders and other mental health conditions.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

10 Principles of Intuitive Eating Infographic
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Ask Ginny: My son is overeating and sneaking food

Ask Ginny: My son is overeating and sneaking food

Dear Ginny,

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

Dear Scared,

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 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 non-diet 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. As 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 judgment.

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 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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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5 Ways a Dietitian Can Help Parents Feed Their Kids

Adapted from an interview with Gina R. Mateer, RD

Most of the time when a parent reaches out to a dietitian for help feeding their kids, it sounds simple. They say “I just want my kids to be healthy.” But feeding our kids has become surprisingly complicated since we live in a culture that is obsessed with being thin, restricting food, and moralizing food behaviors. 

Suddenly, feeding our kids, which seems so simple, becomes a major task. Our kids can pick up on our discomfort, and they often respond to a parent’s stress about food by developing some problematic food behaviors. Here are five ways that I work with parents to help them raise healthy kids.

1. Problematic food behaviors

Problematic food behaviors include picky eating, labeling foods as good or bad (and not wanting to eat “bad” food), maybe even dieting. If you’re noticing these behaviors in your child, then I encourage you to consider your own relationship with food. 

Is it possible that you have a difficult relationship with food? Do you avoid certain foods or restrict food? Do you weigh yourself daily and adjust your behavior based on your weight? Do you make comments, both positive and negative about other people’s weight?

How parents feel about food and weight impacts how kids feel about food and weight. Almost all parents are doing what they think they are supposed to be doing – promoting healthy foods and “watching” weight. But it turns out that these behaviors, and the internal pressure they create, can have negative outcomes in our kids. 

So when a parent comes to me and says their kid has a problem with food, I want to consider whether the parent needs some support with food, too. In fact, I’ll often consider whether we can work with the parent instead of the child. 

Of course, if your child has a very clear eating disorder, there is another path. But if it’s early, and you sense something, see what you can do about your own food fears, weight stigma, and biases that may be trickling down to your kids. 

2. Childhood weight gain

A lot of times parents worry about their child gaining weight, and I see that the weight gain is fine for the child, but uncomfortable for the parents. The parent thinks there is a problem to be fixed, but what’s really going on is internalized fatphobia and fear about what’s going to happen for a child who is in a larger body. 

I get it – parents are worried that a larger child will experience more bullying, be less healthy, and have a less fantastic life. Those are the messages parents are receiving all the time, but it’s not true. Parents can help kids avoid or deal with bullying, be healthy, and live a fantastic life, regardless of whether their kid is thin or fat. 

This is an area that I think parents need a lot of support in. Parents need to know that it’s enough to raise your child in a healthy environment and to allow the child to grow up naturally in the body they were meant to grow up in. So many parents want their kids to be in smaller bodies, and I get it, but it’s also really harmful to carry those beliefs if your child is meant to be in a larger body. 

I can definitely help parents figure out how to feed their kids. I can help them figure out if they are being too restrictive and putting too many rules around food. We can also work together to structure meals for optimum success – nutritionally and emotionally. But the first step is for parents to accept that body diversity is a real thing, and to release their child from thin expectations.

3. Dietitian or therapist?

I think therapy is great, and it’s wonderful when I can work in tandem with a therapist. A therapist can work on issues of self-worth and confidence, while I can work on food behaviors. 

If I’m working with a child who has a serious eating disorder then I’m typically working alongside a therapist and a medical team. Together, we can address the many aspects of eating disorder recovery. 

When a child has disordered eating or just an uncomfortable relationship with food, I can do a lot of work around normalizing all foods and encouraging the child to gain confidence with, and trust in their body. 

Sometimes it seems like parents are more comfortable sending their kids to a dietitian than a therapist. When the focus is food, vs. larger emotional issues, it can seem easier to get started. It can be a less stigmatizing treatment. It is a great place to start, and we can make a big impact on food behaviors with nutritional counseling. 

But if I’m seeing underlying conditions like anxiety, depression, or symptoms of a full-blown eating disorder, I recommend therapy as well. Eating disorders sound like they’re about food, but it’s important to remember that they are mental disorders, so we really need to bring in some psychotherapy to see solid recovery. 

4. Fear of “doing it wrong” 

It’s so common in our culture for parents to be worried about their kids’ body. We’ve been raised in a diet culture that has told us that everyone should be the “right” shape. But there is no “right” shape for bodies. 

We now know that if a parent is concerned about a kids’ body size, there’s going to be so much fear and shame. Even a child who is in a smaller body will develop fear around their body changing. And when it does, for puberty, genetics, or whatever, that can be really difficult for the child. 

Parents do need to learn to work on their relationships with food and bodies as much as possible. Even “nice” comments about other people’s bodies, your own body, and kids’ bodies can cause unintentional harm. It’s not only overt fat shaming that’s a problem. A bunch of small comments that suggest that there is a “right” way to have a body can really hurt. Kids naturally internalize this to mean that if my body is not like that, then I am wrong. 

I’d love all parents to take a good look at their own relationship with food and body. If you know you have issues with food and your body, then get some support! If you are still weighing yourself, restricting certain foods, and worrying about your weight, then now is a good time to talk to someone about that. Because you can tell your kids that all bodies are good bodies, but if you’re treating your body like it’s a problem to be managed, your kids know that. 

I’m not saying this to shame parents at all! We are all raised in this diet-obsessed culture. You’re doing exactly what you think is right. You want what’s best for your child. It’s just that the internalized diet culture that we all live with needs to stop, and we can start with ourselves. 

5. Intuitive Eating for kids

Parents are worried that they’re feeding their kids wrong because all of the conversations around us focus on an intense fear of fat and food. It’s overwhelming to think that a child can really eat intuitively, but I can assure you that I see it happen all the time. 

It can be really scary for parents because when they accept Intuitive Eating and allow all foods in the house, the kids can go a little crazy. It’s very true that kids (and all people) will respond to foods that have been “off limits” by eating a lot of them at first. Parents often think this is evidence that they need to control the food. But it’s actually that the kids are just overcorrecting. 

Kids will eat a lot of the restricted food when it first comes available. They may even eat all of the food when it first appears. They may keep eating it until they really believe – on a deep level – that the food is allowed. And then, once they truly trust that it’s OK, they will not only want the play food. They will naturally balance it out with a whole variety of food. That is the beauty of Intuitive Eating. The body hates it when Doritos are not allowed, but it also doesn’t want to live on Doritos. 

This is the work I do with parents during the Intuitive Eating process. I can help parents trust that their kids will figure out the right balance for their body and grow into the size that they are naturally meant to be. It can be scary because it’s so different from what we’re told in society, but it’s also incredible because it works so much better!

Gina R. Mateer, RD, LD, CEDRD-S, RYT 200 is a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian in the state of Texas, and is recognized as a certified eating disorder registered dietitian. Gina studied nutritional sciences at the University of Texas. After completing the required internship hours and passing the registered dietitian exam in 2010,  she began working at an intensive outpatient program treating eating disorders and providing individual nutrition therapy. She has a virtual practice serving individuals in the state of Texas as a CEDRD and nutritional coaching/counseling as an intuitive eating counselor worldwide. Website

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What to do when a child overeats

It’s very common for parents to worry that their child overeats. The most important thing parents need to know is that there is really no such thing as “overeating.” Except in very rare medical conditions, children eat for good reasons. Most often, children eat to meet a need. When you worry your child overeats, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is my child hungry?
  2. Is my child tired?
  3. Is my child lonely?

Eating is something many people do as a way to meet their physical and emotional needs. It’s best not to pathologize the desire to eat food. Instead, pay attention to what is driving the desire to eat food, and feed that need.

For example, if your child is actually physically hungry, give them food! If your child is tired or stressed, they may need rest and a snack. If your child is lonely and emotionally distressed, they may need a cuddle and some focused attention – as well as a snack.

Food is an easy stand-in for all types of nourishment. Parents should feed a child’s hunger without judgement or criticism while also wondering whether there is another hunger to address.

Also, ask yourself how you know that what your child is eating is “overeating.” How do you know the difference between a child that overeats compared to a child who eats “normally?” You need to dig really deep to separate your child’s experience from your own complicated beliefs about food and weight.

Think of it this way: you don’t question whether your child really needs to pee, or blink, or breathe. Food hunger ideally falls into the same biological category in which we can honor it easily and without judgement. But hunger is complicated in our society, so let’s see what we can do about that.

1. Is my child hungry?

You may think you know how much food your child needs. But your child’s nutritional needs may vary widely from day to day. They may also be different from your own. You may think your child overeats when they are in fact feeding their body appropriately.

If you are someone who controls your own food intake in order to control your weight, you are likely under-eating based on your biological needs. This means you are familiar with a constant hunger and believe that is normal and healthy.

You should know that under-eating is no better than overeating. They both signal a lack of connection with the body’s hunger and fullness cues.

The best relationships with food and body are those in which the person trusts their body and recognizes hunger and fullness cues. This allows them to know when they are physically hungry and also when they have had enough. The sooner you help your child recognize and honor their hunger and fullness cues, the better off they will be.

Teach Intuitive Eating

Teach your child Intuitive Eating. This is a process that honors the body’s ability to eat (and stop eating) based on biological needs. To accomplish true Intuitive Eating, you must accept that your child’s body may not be the size that you wish it would be. It will be the size that it wants to be. Bodies come in a broad range of sizes. When we try to control a body’s weight by restricting food, we set it up for binge eating and poor health.

You can’t turn off a person’s hunger cues without also turning off their fullness cues. This means that if you teach your child to eat less than their appetite, they will learn to ignore hunger cues. At the same time, they will lose their ability to recognize that they have had enough. This is the endless cycle of under-eating and overeating that many people find themselves trapped in. The alternative is that your child learns to ignore hunger cues so completely that they develop anorexia. Neither is a good outcome for your child.

It may take some time to relearn hunger and satiety cues. There’s really no rush. Just trust your child’s body and believe that with your guidance, they will make healthy choices for their unique body.

2. Is my child tired?

Expand your thinking about “hunger” to encompass all feelings of physical and emotional need. Hunger is our very first drive after birth, and it is what supports the survival of our species. There is nothing wrong with hunger – it is healthy and adaptive. Parents should teach their child to notice and listen to physical needs like being tired or needing physical affection. Without this, the child may assume all hunger is food-based.

This doesn’t mean that when your child says they are hungry you tell them to go take a nap. Instead, get curious about what your child’s hunger is telling you. Pay attention to when they say they are hungry and the types of food they are hungering for.

Think about whether they are getting enough sleep or if there are physical disruptions causing stress in their life. Perhaps you have a new infant, an out of town visitor, or the beginning of a new job or school year. All of these can disrupt your child’s sense of physical safety. The solution is not to never have changes. Instead, pay attention to your child and recognize that sometimes food hunger is a mask for a physical sleep or safety need.

Talk about hunger

If you suspect your child may be reacting to a physical sleep or safety need with food hunger, begin by honoring the hunger with a snack. This shows your child that you take their hunger seriously. Once you have given the snack, ask your child how they are feeling in their body. Ask if they are tired, tense, or achy. Try protecting sleep times in your house so that your child gets plenty of rest and relaxation.

Remember that it’s very difficult for a child to separate exactly what they hunger for. It’s often up to the parent to pay attention to the physical conditions and respond accordingly. Feeling hungry varies greatly from body to body. Some people feel it in their gut. Some feel a rumbling. Others feel an emptiness or a tingling. Others feel it in their throats or elsewhere in their bodies.

Help your child tune into their body to identify where the hunger is, and what type of hunger it is (food, physical, or emotional).

Next, talk to your child about their physical sleep and safety needs. Make sure you are feeding their hunger for rest, relaxation, and physical safety. Be aware of physical disruptions and how they can lead to a hunger that needs attention. And always be willing to serve a snack with a side dish of attention and thoughtful conversation about what’s going on in your child’s life.

Over time, your child will learn to distinguish food hunger from other physical and emotional hungers. A child who you think overeats may not be getting their needs met. With your help, they can recognize the difference and nourish themselves with what they need to thrive.

3. Is my child lonely?

Most people it very difficult to separate their body from their mind. This means that often when they hunger for an emotional need, such as attention, affection, and affirmation, they assume it is food hunger. This can become a cycle. If the child doesn’t get their emotional hungers met, they may find that food becomes their greatest comfort.

As a parent, you want to be your child’s comfort. Caloric nourishment is the first form of comfort we give our child. Food can help us connect with them emotionally throughout their lives. Emotional eating has gotten a bad rap, but it’s quite normal for healthy people to sometimes combine emotional care with a snack, a cup of hot chocolate, or a bowl of soup.

Most of our children need more attention, affection, and emotional first aid than we think they do. A child who doesn’t get their emotional needs met will likely learn to repress their emotional needs and turn to coping mechanisms to feel better. In a worst-case scenario, a child may turn to coping behaviors like self-harm, substance abuse, shoplifting, or eating disorders to soothe their emotional disruptions.

This is why it’s so important for parents who worry that a child overeats to pay attention to emotional caregiving. Don’t deny food if your child says they are hungry, but serve it with a side of conversation, compassion, and attention.

Give more love

Give your child more love along with food. Talk to them about how they can get their emotional needs met. For example, do they want to go for a walk with you? Snuggle on the couch? Do they want you to make them a cup of tea in a special mug? Serve them the mac and cheese you made them when they were little? Our kids grow up fast, but they often need us to treat them like children when they’re emotionally vulnerable.

Over time, you can help your child get their emotional needs met without food. But remember that food and eating are not typically a problem for a child who is getting their physical and emotional needs met.

Feeding your child

Sometimes food hunger can be better understood with more structure. A child who you think overeats may benefit from structured meal times and family time. A structured food plan can help the whole family better understand hunger cues and eat in a way that is healthy for both their body and their mind.

We have several articles on this topic including How parents can build healthy food habits and How to feed your child without fear of bad food and weight gain.

We recommend Ellyn Satter’s feeding approach, called Division of Responsibility. She has several books, including our favorite, Your Child’s Weight, Helping Without Harming.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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How to feed a child who is “overeating” and “addicted to food,” by Alexandra Raymond, RDN

As a parent, you want your child to grow up happy. You want him or her to make (overall) smart decisions and be successful. You probably also want your child to grow up “healthy.”

The pressure to raise healthy kids

There is no denying that health and wellness are at the forefront of our minds. We are constantly bombarded by health and wellness information and trends. Celebrities are talking about it. Friends and family are talking about it. Doctors are talking about it.

We’re encouraged to eat certain foods and stay away from others. We’re told that certain foods “speed up metabolism,” while others “slow it down.” We have detoxes and juice cleanses pushed on us. And it seems if you don’t try to follow some of these food trends, you’re doing something wrong. Food and diet culture is huge! After all, the diet industry is worth almost $70 billion.

Because of the pressure society puts on us to be “healthy,” many parents worry about their child’s eating habits. Whether he/she is eating too much of one food and not enough of another. Parents worry their child is gaining “too much” weight. Or even worry their child might be “addicted” to food. And who could blame these parents. They are constantly made to feel they aren’t “good enough” as a parent if they aren’t making sure their kids are eating perfectly.

Impossible food standards

I’ve found that many parents become hyper-aware about what their child is eating. Especially if they feel like their child is eating “too much” and their child lives in a larger body. Hyper-awareness surrounding foods may include:

  • making comments about good foods and bad foods,
  • commenting on the amount of food a child is eating,
  • comments on weight, and
  • asking a child to eat certain foods before other foods (veggies before dessert), etc.

I completely understand why a parent may do this because of the ridiculous amount of pressure they feel to raise “healthy” families. But, unfortunately, this often backfires. I’ve found this hyper-awareness surrounding food causes children to become more obsessed with their bodies, begin dieting at an earlier age, and possibly sneak/hide food from their parents, especially those foods they consider to be “junk foods.” (PS: I personally don’t use the words “junk foods” with my clients because I believe all foods should be placed on the same playing field. “Good” food / “bad” food language is often harmful for people of all ages).

Overeating and addiction

In my office, I often hear parents’ concerns about children “overeating” or being “addicted” to certain foods. In these situations, as hard as it might be, I ask parents to do their best in avoiding comments and to continue to allow their child to self-regulate.

It’s important we don’t think of any foods as “bad” or “addictive” but instead recognize food as a substance like oxygen and water. You most likely don’t worry about your child overconsuming either of those, and food is equally natural and necessary.

First, children are the most intuitive eaters out there. More often than not, your child is actually not “overeating,” but is fueling his/her body with the nutrients he/she needs. We need to be careful and avoid pathologizing certain eating patterns, to avoid the possibility of a child internalizing that guilt and shame.

Second, food is not an addictive substance and we have research that shows this. People may feel addicted to certain foods if they have been deprived of eating them. For example, you tell yourself you’re not going to have sweets. Maybe you don’t eat sweets for a few days or even weeks or months. But, eventually, you’ll be presented with the opportunity to eat sweets again. The moment you eat sweets, it’s totally possible you may feel like you can’t stop.

But this isn’t because you’re “addicted” to sugar. It’s because you have been physically and emotionally deprived from sugar. This same thing happens with kids. It’s important we allow kids to have a wide variety of foods.

How to feed a child

You may be thinking, but what if my child needs to eat healthier? Or what if I feel like my child is eating too much? How can I promote balanced and nutritious eating without triggering negative body image or food thoughts?

Here are my tips:

1. Feed their appetite: Appetites vary for many different reasons for different people and in different stages of life. Sometimes children will feel more hungry and eat more food than “normal” for no apparent reason. On the flip side, sometimes children won’t feel hungry at all and will eat way less than “normal.” It’s important to let your child eat how much or how little they want according to their individual hunger cues, not an arbitrary perception of what they “should” eat. This will help them to stay more in tune with their hunger and fullness signals and support long-term health.

*There is one caveat. If you notice your child is eating significantly less and cutting out foods they previously used to love, this definitely is a concern. Please talk to a health care provider about this.

2. Have a wide variety of foods available: I recommend having a wide variety of foods in your kitchen for your child to eat. You can present these different foods during snack time. For example, you may want to consider putting out some food for when your child gets home from school. The key here is allowing your child to choose what he/she is in the mood for. So whether they choose animal crackers, chips with guacamole, or carrots with hummus, it’s their choice.

3. Monitor emotional changes: If you notice a change in your child’s eating or weight, I recommend you consider whether you notice a change in their emotions. Is your child more withdrawn than usual? Is he/she stressing about things they may not normally stress about? Are they hanging out with friends less? Are they exhibiting increased anxiety around food? Sometimes a change in eating and weight is a sign that something else is happening. I recommend avoiding commenting on food/weight and instead ask them about feelings. If your child is happy and acting as they always do, then weight gain is typically not a concern.

4. Talk less, model more: Children learn how to eat from the adults in their lives. They also learn how to either appreciate or criticize their bodies. Do your best to eat a wide variety of foods along with your child. This includes meat, fish, veggies, fruit, dessert, fried foods, grains, and dairy products. Also, please be mindful about the negative comments made about your body or someone else’s. Negative body comments are easily internalized by children. It’s important to model body appreciation and respect. You can do this by talking about how much your body does for you and by being compassionate toward the physical aspects you may not like about your body.

Alexandra Raymond

Alex is a Registered Dietitian at the private practice Courage to Nourish in Howard County and College Park, Maryland. Alex’s goal is to assist her clients in discovering a life-long healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Alex is a proud and passionate anti-diet and Health At Every Size © advocate. Outside of counseling clients, Alex enjoys cooking (especially Italian foods), journaling, hiking and exploring Washington, DC. Website

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How parents can build healthy food habits & body image in kids

Parents in our culture all worry about one thing consistently: their kids’ food and body. As surprising as it may seem, this worry, which is dramatically increasing every year, is largely unnecessary and often results in poor health – the exact opposite of what we actually want!

From the time they are born, we are bombarded with messages about what our children need to eat and how their bodies need to perform in order to achieve “good parenting.”

But what would you do if you knew that worrying about your kids’ food and weight is actually less healthy for them than if you didn’t? Would you feel anxious? Relieved? Probably a little bit of both.

Food as communication

Hunger is the very first way that our kids communicate with us. Their need for physical nourishment collides with their need for parental nurturing, and most parents respond enthusiastically to their kids’ hunger, feeding them on demand and doing their best to respond to hunger and fullness cues.

But the more verbal our children become, the less we honor the connection between their hunger for food and their hunger for connection with us. The truth is that almost all humans maintain a strong link between physical hunger and the need for care and attention for life. But our culture looks down on this connection and believes we should completely separate physical hunger from emotional hunger.

We tend to live in fear of “overfeeding” our children, which we believe is a sign of poor parenting. This can lead to serious eating issues in our children, ranging from foodphobia (avoidance of and fear of food) to eating in the absence of physical hunger and beyond fullness (binge eating). Both of these extremes (and everything in between) are obviously problems, but we can often solve them more easily if we see them as a child’s primitive attempt to communicate with their parents.

When we consider how a child may be communicating with us via food, we can learn how to feed them physically and emotionally.

Lots of children are, unfortunately, being raised in environments in which food is restricted and withheld by parents. The restriction may be overt or subconscious, but if restriction of food is happening, the child feels hungrier on both a physical and emotional level. This can lead to serious food and emotional repercussions.

If a child has a disordered relationship with food, it may be a sign that they need something more from the parent-child relationship. Or it may simply be that they are hungry because their food has been restricted. The solution is (almost always) to offer them more food and provide more emotional nourishment.

Body image as a sign of pain

Bad body image is so common that it’s virtually impossible to meet a person over the age of 8 who doesn’t wish for something different about their bodies. But this is not healthy or normal, and no parent wishes this upon their child. Nonetheless, we are often part of the bad body image our children experience, and even if we have managed to avoid saying anything that encourages bad body image, we may not have learned to counteract the terrible body image messages that our child is fed every day.

Our society has become increasingly obsessed with weight, body size, and body performance. This obsession was previously primarily focused on females, but males are increasingly body-conscious and suffering the consequences that we have seen in females for decades.

Parents are made to feel responsible for their kids’ weight, even though a person’s weight is almost as intractable as their shoe size or height, neither of which parents take responsibility for other than basic genetics.

As anyone who has lost weight will tell you, before they lost the weight, they thought that weight loss would change their lives for the better, and that they would suddenly be happier and more loved as a result of losing weight. But they will also tell you that once they lost the weight, they did not see any emotional improvement. They did not suddenly become more confident, happy and attractive to others. In fact, they most often feel increased stress due to the near-constant fear about the probability of weight regain while still suffering from the same feelings of inadequacy that they had before they lost the weight.

Body image in our society has become a way to communicate fundamental unease with the self.

A person can be physically healthy but still seek weight loss because we have been convinced that weight loss is the most influential route to happiness. But it’s not. Emotional needs are never met when we change our bodies – they are only achieved when we actually meet our emotional needs.

Bad body image is a signal of unease with the self. If your child has a poor body image, they do not need to lose weight, they need help in bolstering their sense of identity, self-worth, and self-esteem.

What parents can do to build healthy food habits and body image in kids

The biggest issue we hear from parents is that they really want to build healthy food habits and positive body image in their kids, but they don’t know what to do or where to start. This is understandable. Those of us who are doing this work are cultural outliers – our parenting behavior is not “normal” in our society (unfortunately!).

But you should know that it is possible to have kids who have a truly healthy relationship with food and their bodies. It’s not easy, and it’s not perfect (almost everyone occasionally under- and over-eats, and almost everyone has bad body days), but it’s possible.

Here are three ways you can help your kids build a healthy relationship with food and their bodies:

1. Meet their emotional needs. Parents are imperfect. We know this. But it’s not enough to throw our hands up and say it’s just too hard or our kid wants nothing to do with us. We are parents, and we simply must find a way to meet our kids’ emotional needs. Even if they act like they don’t need us to do this for them, they do. It’s a hard-wired need inside of every human being.

Start by reading this excellent book about the parent-child relationship: Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté.

Take it further by getting some therapy for yourself. A therapist can help you untangle your own emotional needs from your ability to care for your child’s emotional needs. A psychodynamic therapist will help you go back into your past and heal past wounds, while a cognitive behavioral therapist (CBT) will focus on immediate tools to help you parent more effectively.

2. Feed them effectively. We get a lot of confusing, unhealthy, and damaging messages about food in our society. It takes tremendous effort to overcome these horrible messages and feed a child who is not afraid of or overly-dependent on food. But you can join the growing club of parents who are doing this every day.

Start by reading this excellent book about feeding children: Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, by Ellyn Satter.

Take it further by seeking the support of a qualified non-diet Registered Dietitian (RD) who recognizes the connection between food and emotional nourishment and can guide you towards building a more food-positive environment in your home. We have a directory of qualified non-diet RDs. If there isn’t one in your area, almost all of them will work with you remotely via phone.

3. Support a positive body image. Our society is filled with awful messages about what bodies are supposed to look like, but since 95% of our population does not meet the ideal that we see in the media, almost all of us feel badly about our bodies. Parents cannot prevent bad body days completely, because it’s virtually impossible to maintain a 100% positive body image given the environment in which we live. But we can make a tremendous difference in how our kids feel about their bodies.

Start by reading this excellent book, which will help you release any unhealthy thoughts and worries you have about your child’s weight: Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Linda Bacon.

Take it further by taking a deep dive into body positivity and reading this fun and uplifting book: Body Positive Power: Because Life Is Already Happening and You Don’t Need Flat Abs to Live It, by Megan Jayne Crabbe, also known as @bodyposipanda on Instagram.

Make a difference in your child’s health for life

Taking these three actions will make a difference in your child’s lifelong health. If you truly care about your child’s health, then one of your parenting goals should be to raise a child who never, ever diets or pursues any form of intentional weight loss. This is because intentional weight loss is shown to be more damaging to their health than staying at whatever weight they are before weight loss. If you need more proof of this, read Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, by Traci Mann.

If you can, please seek support from a qualified dietitian who can help you navigate food and body issues. We created the first directory of non-diet dietitians because we know that every single parent will benefit from at least one consultation with a professional who can help start to untangle our unhealthy foodphobia and fatphobia.

If you are skeptical about our statements about food and body and their true impact on health, please check out our research library of the science behind what we say.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Let your kids (and yourself!) eat Halloween candy!

let kids eat Halloween candy

As Halloween approaches, are you asking yourself if it’s OK to let kids eat Halloween candy? What about you – can you eat candy? Are you already shutting the thought down, assuring yourself that this year you will finally make sure you all stay sugar-free?

It’s tough because right now candy is everywhere. Every store, every desk, and every place we go seems to be offering up tiny bites of sweetness. If you’re like many people, you studiously forbid yourself from succumbing to the temptation of candy … most of the time. But there are probably days when you just can’t resist, and then you binge, feel horribly guilty, and pretty sick.

You say things like:

“I love candy so much, but I mustn’t eat it! I’ll ruin my diet!”

“I love chocolate, but once I start, I just can’t stop.”

“I ate an entire bag of candy yesterday – I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”

And if you see your kids eating candy you feel like a bad parent. You worry that you’ll permanently damage their health if you allow them to eat Halloween candy. There are lots of articles out there teaching parents how to restrict Halloween candy, but this article is different. In this article, I want to encourage you to eat the Halloween candy … and let your kids eat it, too!

You think it’s you

Maybe you think you or your kids are addicted to candy. That you have some fatal flaw that removes your self-control and forces you to consume massive amounts of candy. You probably think your kids have this flaw, too. You’ve seen them inhale an entire bowl of M&Ms in one sitting. It’s bad! It’s not right! Sugar is evil! You have to stop them!

Sugar is the nutritional bad guy right now. Many people say that sugar is addictive. If you consume popular media, then you probably believe that sugar is terrible and that you and your kids are addicted. And there’s only one place for people who give into their sugar cravings, and it’s a shame-filled room where you stand up and introduce yourself as someone who is “An Addict.”

Here’s the truth

You’re not alone in this. Your kids aren’t, either. But there’s a crazy secret that you don’t know yet. You are giving the candy way too much power over your life. Maybe you think that you have to avoid candy because once you start eating it, you can’t stop. You think that it’s impossible for anyone to have self-control around candy. You have been told that eating candy will instantly add inches to your waist and can even give you diabetes. And you believe you have to control your kids’ candy consumption for the same reason.

But it’s not true!

Too many people live in fear of candy and other foods that we consider “off limits.” We can develop symptoms of anxiety just being in the presence of foods that we have decided are scary. Fear of food is a symptom of disordered eating. If you or your child is afraid to eat candy, or if you are afraid that your child eats too much candy, then it is time to get some help and put candy in its place.

Life may be scary on many levels, but none of us need to live in fear of a food item.

Here’s the secret

Your body only wants a whole bag of candy right now because you’ve been giving candy power by denying your body for so long. Your body hates being restricted, so it acts out, like a stubborn toddler. It sulks and complains, and then, when you aren’t watching, it sneaks out of the house and does things to get back at you for trying to control it.

When you restrict the candy, you turn yourself into a dictator over your body, and your body will rebel. You will consider yourself “good” and “perfect” until one day something snaps, and you end up with candy wrappers everywhere and a very bad stomachache. You think this is further proof that you should never, ever eat candy. But that’s not true. The problem is that you restricted candy in the first place.

The solution is to eat Halloween candy!

Eat the candy, but enjoy the candy openly and honestly. Give yourself and your kids permission to eat candy whenever you want candy. Give up the diet mentality that you must control all foods, and trust that your body doesn’t actually want to live on candy alone. It’s true. It really doesn’t.

You are not unique. It has been consistently shown that, given unlimited food choices, most people will naturally even out their intake to provide a healthy balance for their individual bodies. Researchers who study Intuitive Eating don’t get as many book deals as the people who tell us to be afraid of food. But we have known for decades that the more you restrict “forbidden” foods, the greater the likelihood that you are also binging on those foods.

And the same is true for our kids. If we don’t let our kids eat Halloween candy, we set them up for restriction and binge eating. And that’s much less healthy than a little sugar now and then.

Try this instead

Instead of trying to resist candy, slow down and pay attention to your cravings and the candy. Bring candy out of the closet. Bring mindfulness to your food, and you will find your relationship with it transformed. Instead of criticizing yourself and the candy, try asking:

“Do I want the candy?”

“How does this candy taste?”

“Would I prefer a different candy to this one?”

“Do I want to eat more candy right now?”

When we approach candy (and all food) with curiosity instead of judgment, the candy becomes “just food,” instead of the forbidden fruit. Now we can figure out if we even actually like candy. When we take this approach, it’s definitely OK to eat Halloween candy. If we like it, then we should sit down and enjoy it, just like we would an apple or a kale salad. We shouldn’t eat it in secret or with any sense of shame. When we stop feeling shame about our food, it loses power over us.

The same goes for our kids. If we have restricted them, then they are likely gorging on candy when given the opportunity. When we give them food freedom while asking curious questions and expecting all food to be eaten peacefully and without hiding, our kids will stop sneaking forbidden candy, and will naturally find a candy intake that makes sense for their individual bodies.

Trust your body

When we treat our bodies and our kids’ bodies with respect and trust, they honestly don’t want to eat a whole bag of candy. It’s OK to eat as much Halloween candy as feels good for your body. And you may be surprised that, once you remove the restrictions on candy, you can actually pay attention to how it feels in your body. The fewer limits you put on the candy, the less power it has over you.

And then you start to notice that you have preferences about the type of candy, when you actually want it, and how you want to eat it. Over time, candy gets a normal place in your life. You realize that it’s OK to let yourself and your kids eat candy, not just at Halloween, but anytime!

It doesn’t matter how much candy you eat, as long as it’s your body that’s making the decision, and not your diet-ridden, shame-filled brain. The key is to listen to your body’s feedback rather than trying to circumvent its intelligence and tell it what to do.

Trust your kids’ bodies

Most importantly, trust your kids’ bodies. You don’t have to control their candy intake. Their bodies will do it for them. Honestly. Speak with anyone who has read and implemented books from Ellyn Satter and you will hear surprise and awe about their experience with trusting their toddlers’ bodies to self-regulate.

“We were constantly fighting over candy and I was driving myself crazy, forcing veggies on my 3-year-old,” said one parent. “A year later, after I started following Ellyn Satter’s advice, my kid was still eating candy, but then she would go to the fridge and get herself some carrots and hummus. She was actually balancing her diet without any input (or nagging!) from me! I was amazed and humbled.”

Diet culture is dead wrong

It’s not easy in our society, because we are all taught the diet culture from birth, which is that if we don’t control what we eat, we are bad. And guess who is there to save us from ourselves? The diet industry! All the diet books assure us that if we restrict certain food groups, certain nutrients, certain fats, and overall calorie intake, we will maintain a slim body and, most importantly, be worthy of admiration.

We are told that we can’t follow our body’s cravings, because then we will all turn into couch potatoes who provide zero value to society.

It’s a big, fat lie. The documented truth is that 95% of people who lose weight because of food restriction (diets) regain all the weight they lost plus more within one to five years, and the vast majority have regained it within two years (UCLA). The multi-billion dollar diet industry is an industry that preys on our insecurities. It lies to us.

Enjoy the candy

Don’t restrict and boss around your body anymore. Let it be. Eat candy at Halloween or anytime. When you trust it, your body will become a healthy ally, and you will be significantly happier and healthier than someone who chronically restricts their food intake. And the same goes for your kids.

Let your kids enjoy candy

Even if you can’t do it for yourself, please don’t restrict your kids. Our kids’ bodies are precious. They deserve to grow up being trusted and believed in. We need to normalize all foods (including candy!) and all body sizes, and we need to let go of fear-based food restrictions, which are so very harmful and can directly lead to disordered eating behavior and full-blown eating disorders.

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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How to feed your child without fear of weight gain

How to feed your child without fear of weight gain

It’s challenging to feed a child when you’re worried about their weight gain. Messages about feeding kids the “right” foods and avoiding weight gain are everywhere.

Many parents worry that they will make terrible mistakes when feeding their kids. They worry about feeding children “too much” so they gain weight. And they worry about creating body image and eating issues. It can seem like an impossible equation.

We live in a dangerous time for body image and eating disorders. Decades of fear-mongering have created conditions in which parents believe they must control or reduce their children’s weight.

Parents believe that if they don’t control their children’s food intake, their children will gain too much weight. They worry that the way they feed a child will either create or prevent weight gain. Many parents believe that larger children result from poor feeding practices.

We think it’s our fault if our kids are larger. Ellyn Satter, a well-known expert on feeding, says the crisis we face today is not childhood weight, but a crisis of parenting and feeding.

Living in diet culture

Living in diet culture has convinced parents that bodies are at constant risk of gaining weight. However, weight is more correlated with genetics and environment than individual behaviors and eating patterns. A parent cannot prevent a child from gaining weight without creating major side effects.

Parents may be surprised to learn that focusing on weight can actually increase weight. Parents who worry about their kids’ weight raise heavier children compared to those who do not. If you feed your child less to try and avoid weight gain, you may accidentally cause weight gain.

Our kids’ weight is not the problem we’re facing in our society. The problem we’re facing is that parents disregard their child’s bodily needs. Parents think they need to control their kids’ food to the point of disregarding their child’s preferences. Parents often attempt to restrict their child’s food intake and accidentally drive dangerous food behaviors.

These problems underlie most eating disorders, which have serious consequences for life. Eating disorders impact at least 10% of the population (NEDA), and are on the rise. And eating disorders have worse health outcomes than high body weight.

Wanting a thin child

From the day of our child’s birth, medical professionals report on our child’s weight and editorializing what it means. It’s always some variation on the theme of BMI. And conversations about weight gain are typically centered on how parents feed a child. Here’s how these conversations go:

  • On the “average” curve, which implies perfect nutrition
  • Below the “average” curve, which implies more food is needed
  • Above the “average curve, which implies less food is needed

But the BMI scale was developed to be used on a population scale. It was never intended to guide individual health. No weight chart can ever tell you what is healthy for your child.

Our healthcare providers spend an inordinate time discussing our kids’ BMI. When faced with an otherwise healthy child, doctors discuss weight because it is one of the only measurements of interest.

But in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics told doctors to not talk about weight with children and adolescents. This is because it often causes harm, and very seldom is helpful.

This is because weight is much more complex than most of us understand. Even doctors may have these false beliefs:

  • Weight is a simple equation of energy in and energy out (not true)
  • Anybody can achieve low body weight with willpower and effort (not true)
  • People who weigh more, eat more and move less (not true)

None of these beliefs is true. Our bodies are complex. The only way to override a body’s natural and complex weight system is to diet. But dietary restriction creates significant stress on the body. It also reduces metabolic rate, increases lifetime weight, and leads to poor health outcomes.

“Being thin is not the most important thing for your child. Most important is knowing you love him and accept him for being just who he is—thin or fat, tall or short.” 

Ellyn Satter

Controlling food

Adults who believe that a child will overeat and eat only junk are reflecting their own food issues. This is not the reality of how children naturally eat.

Our children are born with innate hunger and food satiety signals. They have a perfect system of bodily feedback. Children can be raised without food control. They can be encouraged to eat based on their personal appetite vs. external food rules. These children neither overeat nor under-eat most of the time. Their bodies find a healthy homeostasis based on their unique genetics and environment.

“My message—one that not all parents are pleased to hear—is that your child’s eating is determined by the way you feed,” says Satter. “They depend on regular meals and snacks to know they will get fed. If they don’t know they will be fed and allowed to eat as much as they want at frequent and predictable times, they will eat as much as they can whenever they can. Their fear of going hungry will override their cues of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction and make them eat until they can hold no more.”

How we feed our children reflects our own beliefs about control

Many parents live in a state of fear of weight gain. They control their own food, so it seems to make sense to do the same with children. This approach to eating is extremely “normal” in our society today, but it is also maladaptive and unhealthy. Nobody should live in fear of their bodies and food. Typically, this fear begins early and is reinforced often in our society.

Parents who want to raise healthy children must actively resist cultural messages. We must reject the idea that children are not to be trusted with food and should be tightly controlled. Parents need to forget rules like “no sugar,” “only organic food,” and “no soda.”

Parents worry that if they don’t control their kids’ eating, their kids will eat only candy and potato chips for every meal for the rest of their lives. This is rarely the case. In fact, parents who follow Ellyn Satter’s feeding method find that their children naturally have varied and healthful eating patterns.

This only sounds impossible if you have lived in fear of your own insatiable appetite. Once parents learn to trust themselves around food, they realize that they can trust their children around food, too.

“Normal feeding is providing the child with a variety of nutritious and appealing food, then letting him decide what and how much to eat based on his internal regulators of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction.”

Ellyn Satter

Restricting food

Food restriction is the primary technique in all weight loss efforts. It is also the foundation of almost all eating disorders. It may include restricting all calories or certain food items (sugar, fat, carbs, etc.).

The goal of all food restriction is to reduce weight and improve health. However, the willful restriction of food is consistently shown to do neither of those things. In fact, it typically leads to increased weight and lower health.

Parents who restrict their kids’ food put their children at higher risk of gaining weight and developing eating disorders. This is due to the complexity of weight, food, and eating. When our babies are born, the first thing we do is nurture them with food. Feeding our children is closely tied to loving our children. Our children cannot separate their bodies from themselves. This is why parents who try to restrict a child’s body accidentally restrict them emotionally.

“Restricting hurts both emotionally and physically and in the long run will make your child fatter, not thinner.”

Ellyn Satter

A child who feels insecure in their relationship with their parent will develop many emotional side effects. When food is a battleground, kids may eat more than is physically comfortable or less than their body needs. Both ends of the spectrum find their roots in a fundamental lack of self-trust and a parent’s approach to feeding.

“Children whose eating is restrained by their parents lack internal regulators. When they get out on their own, their lack of internal regulators can distort their eating in a variety of ways.”

Ellyn Satter

Ellyn Satter’s approach


Satter’s approach says that parents are responsible for feeding, and children are responsible for eating. This means that parents should provide healthful and delicious food choices. And they should allow the child to determine which and how much food to put in their body. It’s a simple plan, but often requires some major work by parents who are currently stuck in diet culture.

A good first start is to read any of Satter’s books. A great next step is to get support from a professional who can help you implement the program. With this support, parents can learn to overcome their assumptions about weight and food. They can begin parenting their children without fear of either.

We strongly recommend any of Ellyn Satter’s books, including Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.

“Children have a wonderful way of changing when their parents change—provided their parents really mean it.”

Ellyn Satter

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 and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.