For Parents: How NOT to Manage Your Child’s Weight

Girl pondering broccoli

This is a guest blog post by Jill Castle MS, RD, LDN

Recently, an article entitled “Weight Watchers” in Vogue written by Dara-Lynn Weiss described how she successfully managed her 7 year-old daughter’s weight problem by putting her on a diet. Dara-Lynn Weiss—aka the Tiger Feeder—now has a book deal (with the title rumored to be “The Heavy”).

Weiss’s Tiger Feeding approach used restriction, control, shame, blame and punishment. And it seems to have worked—at least on the outside. Her daughter Bea lost weight, though I expect she may have lost some other things as well: self-confidence, self-esteem, an ability to self-regulate her own eating, a healthy body image, and what might have been a positive relationship with her mom, food and eating.

What I know:

The body of research on restrictive feeding shows that this approach backfires, and is often associated with weight gain in the long run and negative eating patterns such as hiding, sneaking, hoarding and eating in the absence of hunger (eating for reasons other than hunger).

Cutting calories also means slashing nutrients—something that can have a negative impact on overall health status and growth. In today’s child nutrition climate, cutting important and already deficient nutrients will be detrimental.

Diets don’t work. But they do a pretty good job of increasing the risk for an eating disorder! The body of evidence here is clear—children and teens who diet are at an increased risk for the development of disordered eating or an eating disorder.

Nutrition knowledge is at an all time low. This is just one more point of proof. Many parents know little about what to feed their kids, how to feed them, as well as manage the outside pressures to help their children navigate the world and it’s (often extreme) nutrition and weight beliefs. And, when you don’t know (and perhaps are desperate), sometimes you will go to extreme measures. Maybe this is what happened with Dara-Lynn.

The parent-child relationship is ultimately what will pull many parents and their children through the rocky years of adolescence, the pressures of society and the child developmental stages that are sure to come. At the least, you want this relationship to be founded on love, mutual trust and communication.

When it comes to weight management in children, the research supports a gradual weight reduction (if needed) or a cessation of weight gain to allow normal growth and weight redistribution. This takes time and a lifestyle change–something that some parents find hard to do. Preserving normal growth and a healthy nutritional status is of utmost importance. Certainly, maintaining a healthy outlook on food, eating and one’s own body is critical too.

We love to point the finger at food. Many might say this little girl ate too much and didn’t move enough (the old “blame it on the food and exercise” excuse), but I bet there was more to the story. It’s too simplistic to blame it on an over-indulgence on party day or snacking. True, this is part of the picture, but the reality is weight gain comes from many factors—in this case, it might have had something to do with the feeding practices at home, her stage of child development and how she handled outside influences around food, as well as her own eating personality and temperament.

This is what bugs me:

As a whole, we don’t look at the whole child when we address weight problems—we focus on food or physical activity, resulting in a narrow view. In my experience the answer lies deeper. Weight reflects how children are fed, where they are in their developmental progress, and the world around them as much as it does food and activity. As I love to say, “It’s not about eating, it’s about feeding!”

Why I am grateful for Vogue and Dara-Lynn Weiss:

You have made it clear how NOT to manage children’s weight. And in doing so, you will leave parents looking for a more loving, holistic approach to feeding children. One that certainly covers food and nutrition, but dares to dive deeper. An approach that gives parents insight into how their daily feeding interactions (feeding style and practices) affect their child’s eating, for the better or worse. An approach that is also sensitive to child development, giving parents a “what to expect” view on raising healthy eaters in the 21st century.

You have primed parents for Fearless Feeding, and I thank you for that.

While you have elevated the fear around feeding children, and weight, I know this isn’t necessary. Why be afraid to feed children, when you can be confident and fearless? When you know what to feed kids, how to do it and why children behave they way they do around food and eating, life is so much easier…and feeding your child becomes a joy, not a fear-laden struggle.

Fearless FeedingIf you are a parent looking for a positive way to feed your child, without shame, blame, punishment, food restriction, deprivation or control, please visit our community, Fearless Feeding on Facebook, while our book is in the making.  You can expect to see Fearless Feeding on shelves in early 2013. It will be the resource you’re looking for, and a guide to help you feed your child throughout his/her entire childhood in positive and productive ways, using an approach you can be proud of.

Should I forward a copy to Dara-Lynn and Vogue?

Jill Castle is a child nutrition expert, blogger at Just The Right Byte, speaker, nutrition consultant and private practice owner. She lives with her husband and 4 children in Nashville, TN. 


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  • SS

    I have fed both of my children using Ellyn Satter’s (“Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense”) methods and both eat a variety of foods and are very healthy.  I make sure to buy and make nutrient dense, whole foods and give them control around how much they eat without making comments and without punishing/bribing with food.
    I think what the mother in the article did is child abuse.  We should never try to get kids to *lose* weight because they can end up deprived of essential nutrients for growth.  Instead, the goal is for the child to grow into the weight they are currently at and to address the physical, psychological, and social needs of the child. 

    • Jill

      SS, I wish more people knew about Ellyn Satter and her work–she is a pioneer in establishing the dynamic between the parent and child as an integral component to competent eating. I have met so many adults who as children were raised/fed in ways that have interfered with their eating/weight today…and continues to interfere with their interactions around feeding their own children. All of that is preventable–but we have to help parents make the connection between today’s actions (or desires, ie. I want my child to eat healthy) and tomorrow’s outcomes (binge eating, eating disorder, obesity, unhealthy relations with food/eating)–lots of work to be done–but do-able!

  • Mona

    I am raising a family of seven children. Two of them, both girls, have given me a lot of challenges when it comes to healthy eating. They both learned picky behaviours. It’s taken me years with the older one to get her to where she is now..finally eating very healthy and gaining the weight she needs as she enters puberty.
    The mother in the article is, quite frankly, a fool.
    There are far better ways to get a child to lose weight than to shame them. That is simply far too detrimental to a child to be a good way of doing things.

    • Jill

      Mona, I always find it necessary to remind parents that it takes a whole childhood to raise a healthy child/adult. There’s a lot to learn, and some it needs to happen in due time (not too early or too late)–that’s why I hope our book will be the resource parents need to know how to deal with the common challenges of childhood when they occur, but also to anticipate what’s coming down the pike–that’s the kind of nutrition knowledge parents need–they need to be armed ahead of time so they think things through and make sensitive, conscientious decisions. You have my admiration as a mother of 7–kudos to you!

      • Maryann Jacobsen

        I understand what Dina is saying and I’m familiar with the research about food attitudes and nutrition knowledge in the US and other countries.  The US eat more for health reasons but get less enjoyment from eating while other countries like France eat for enjoyment and are more moderate in their view of nutrition.  The problem is that there’s a lot of confusion about nutrition in the US — too much information (and often not credible) doesn’t help the situation.  When it comes to childhood nutrition there is even more confusion and is often the reason for feeding mistakes like forcing veggies and treating kids like mini adults by putting them on diets or fat-free meals (which is the case here).  Helping parents get the right information on nutrition for kids, while not the asnwer to the problem, is important in the feeding process and something we will include in Fearless Feeding.

  • Catherine

    Sadly, in time, I think this daughter will have some issues to deal with and for no good reason.  Not least her relationship with her own Mother.  How very sad.  I am quite exasperated that Vogue would even publish that.

  • Karyn

    Shaming and blaming is crappy parenting, period.  The goal of parenting is to raise our children to be capable, confident, responsible adults who can make their own choices wisely.  Too many people seem to think it means being an obsessive, micromanaging control freak.  I applaud the author of this article for speaking up against what surely borders on abuse, and for raising awareness of what to expect with normal child development.

    Shaming and blaming is also ineffective, over the long term, in maintaining any positive habits.  Just ask any adult who struggles (or has struggled) with weight issues:  A positive approach, motivated by wanting to take good care of yourself, works a heckuva lot better than telling yourself how awful and disgusting and fat you are.

  • Dina

    I agree with everything you have said, except one thing: Nutrition knowledge is NOT at an all time low. It’s at an all time high.  However, nutrition knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into healthy eating (or in this case, into healthy parenting). An article was published recently in The British Food Journal which sampled American, Canadian and French people on their knowledge of nutrition. It’s not surprising that the Americans know the most about nutrition, and the French know the least. What most people find surprising is that the people who know the most, eat the worst.


    • Jill

      Dina, I’d like to look at that article–can you cite the reference so I can check that out? I actually think there’s a fair amount of misinformation circulating about nutrition, and for children, since they are a specialty population (with nutrient needs varying at every stage of development, as well as developmental changes influencing their choices, etc), it’s even murkier. I agree, knowledge doesn’t equal good nutrition or feeding practices, however, many families are unclear on child nutrition. 

  • Maxine

    To raise a healthy, well-adjusted child a parent must be the mature influence. It helps considerably for the parent to be intelligent and well-educated…smarter, at least, than the child. It is a travesty for any child to be saddled with an irrational orthorexic parent, fixated with diets and food myths. Those poor unfortunate children are destined to emotional instability unless they are taken into custody by Child Protective Services. Stupid people shouldn’t breed because they naturally make dangerous incompetent parents.

    • Norma

      It is also a travesty for a child to be raised by parents who think Trix cereal and soda and frozen pizza and Pop Tarts are food and that unlimited, unmonitored TV, internet and video game time are a good use of a child’s time.  Much easier to rip open a bag of chips and plop the kids in front of a screen than actually shop, cook, learn, talk, interact and take an interest in your child’s physical and psychological development.

  • Peter k

    Nice article. Just because someone writes a book doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about.  Hitler’s autobiography is one extreme example.

  • Rbiolalist

    What if it is the other way around and the child is trying to teach the parents?

  • Chrisrosenbloom

    Great job, Jill. Your points are valid and evidence-based.

  • Evab

    Dara-Lynn has been lambasted in the press.  While her route is not the one that I might have followed, I commend her for making a difficult choice.  As a mother, I will never get over everyone else’s inability to stop feeding my children.  From the parties, the school to the outrageous snacks at every sport and outing – it is impossible to keep the junk out of your own children’s mouths.  The principal at my kids’ school said to me, “We want to be part of their childhood too.”  To me, childhood does not equate to endless chemical-filled candy and snacks.  Inevitably the mom (me) who tries to keep the garbage out of their kids bodies is labeled a nut, extremist or even better, a food nazi.  So the mother who doesn’t want their kid to eat McDonald’s is now equated to people who murdered 6 million people.  You know you’ve heard this!!
    Everyone has lost their minds on the food topic.  I say hurray for the woman from Vogue, she was willing to take a beating to get her daughter on the right path.  Not everyone can eat anything they want even as a child and stay at the right weight.  Her daughter Bea will probably have to watch her weight her whole life, hopefully lesson learned.  I am thankful that my children aren’t in the same boat, how much easier for them and for me.

  • Adera17

    When I see an overweight child I never blame the kid. A young child needs to learn healthy eating habits from parents. We can’t expect our kids to make healthy eating choices outside the home if all we have laying around our own kitchens is sugary and carb filled snacks. I give my child crackers, apples and cheese for a snack. He is much more likely to grow fond of those healthy items and more apt to prefer them later in life. Research has shown that kids will follow our examples in good choices. So when I drink milk instead of soda or juice my child will make the same choice. My one year old son already prefers water in his sipy cup and will have nothing to do with, even watered down, juice.

    • Jill

      Adera17, I agree. I never blame the child–they are merely a product of their environment, for the most part. Parents need to take the lead, plain and simple. and we who are healthcare professionals need to really be accessible and helpful, not blaming or promising a quick fix that in the end won’t have staying power.

  • Pcullen1985

    Jill – great article its got me thinking on how my wife and I are not doing as well as we could in teaching nutrition with our son. It was an informative article!
    Best Regards

    Pete Cullen in OH.

    • Jill

      Thanks Pete! You can find more on my blog, and in my upcoming (2013) book, Fearless Feeding!

  • Jen

    I’ve read that Vogue article and the mother herself has struggled with weight management throughout her life. Her doctor said her daughter needed to lose weight and hence, the struggle and battles with food with her daughter began. Some of the conclusions made in the article included that they’ll always gain weight more readily than others so they’ll have to be more careful about their eating. All in all, the lady was brave in writing about this tragic experience.

  • Jen

    I’ve read that Vogue article and the mother herself has struggled with weight management throughout her life. Her doctor said her daughter needed to lose weight and hence, the struggle and battles with food with her daughter began. Some of the conclusions made in the article included that they’ll always gain weight more readily than others so they’ll have to be more careful about their eating. All in all, the lady was brave in writing about this tragic experience.

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