By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
Everyone is talking about the article in April’s edition of Vogue in which Dara-Lynn Weiss admits to putting her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, on a diet. This mom chronicles her journey of micromanaging every bite that goes into her daughter, resulting in a 16-pound weight loss over the course of a year.
There is no shortage of criticisms of this piece, but what’s missing is the big lesson. If this is the wrong thing to do, and most experts agree that it is, what exactly is the right thing to do? With Weiss’s story fresh in my mind, I’m sharing 5 things I desperately wish were in that now infamous article.
1. Dieting is not the way to go: In her article, Weiss recites obesity statistics, but she may not be aware of dieting statistics. There is now strong evidence that dieting is associated with weight gain over time, not loss. Take a 2012 study published in International Journal of Obesity. Over 4000 Finnish twins were followed, with their weight measured at 16, 17, 18 and 25 years. Attempts at weight loss were not only associated with accelerated weight gain (independent of genetic factors), the risk of excess weight increased with each dieting attempt.
And worse yet, dieting is the most common behavior that will lead to an eating disorder, which have increased threefold in the last 40 years. While weight is a part of health, teaching a child to diet definitely has consequences in terms of health and quality of life. (For the difference between dieting and healthy habits see this post)
2. What parents feed matters, but so does how and why: First off, besides medical tests, there was no discussion of why Bea started eating off the charts. Did she feel deprived? What was the feeding relationship like between Bea and her mom? It’s obvious Weiss took a controlling, restrictive approach with her daughter and research doesn’t look too kindly on this. In fact, restriction is the feeding practice most associated with higher weights in children.
“Not only do parents need to know WHAT to feed their kids, they need to know HOW to do it in a positive manner, and WHY kids eat the way they do,” says Jill Castle, pediatric nutrition specialist. “Until parents can be educated, I believe we will continue to see these practices — restrictive feeding, punishment, pressure — all counter-productive to healthy eating and a healthy body.”
3. Avoid the “weight = acceptance” message: In the Vogue article, Bea is quoted as saying “I’m not a different person just because I lost 16 pounds,” but her mom sees it differently by writing, “that fat girl is a thing of the past.” It’s obvious to me Bea is screaming for acceptance for her true self. Children need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are loved and accepted for who they are regardless of their weight, size and shape.
“Please, if you have a fat child, be very careful and sensitive about the messages you give her,” writes Melanie, who shares her childhood weight struggles on this site. “Try to give positive messages to your child — that she is loved as she is. Try not to embed the Food = Bad, You Eat, Therefore You = Bad equation. It will do more harm than good.”
4. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: What really strikes me about this article is not only that the mom is frank about her own unhealthy relationship with food and weight (“I have not ingested any food, looked at a restaurant menu, or been sick to the point of vomiting without silently launching a complicated mental algorithm about how it will affect my weight”), but that she doesn’t see it as part of the problem.
A 2001 study published in Appetite revealed that parental feeding practices are influenced not just by a child’s weight, but a mother’s own investment in weight and eating issues. I’d love to see this story in reverse — one where a mom takes a hard look (and changes) her dysfunctional attitudes towards food, weight, and exercise so her daughter can escape the cycle. Instead, this mom is teaching her daughter to adopt such behaviors — obsess over every bite, count calories, and put weight as the ideal of health — which will unfortunately take up precious energy in this little girl’s life.
5. No one is adequately preparing parents: “While I am not for this mother’s tactics, I do understand where she and many other parents are coming from,” says Castle. “They are afraid of having an unhealthy child (and perhaps an overweight one too), are feeling the pressure to prevent, treat, and turn it around, and receive little education and support in the 18-year process of feeding children.”
In an ideal world, parents would learn how and what to feed their children from the beginning to help prevent such issues, and heal their own “diet baggage” in the process. Weiss is right when she says more parents need to talk about childhood weight and how to handle it. That’s why Jill Castle and I have started the Fearless Feeding Community to get parents talking about these modern-day challenges and the best way to respond.
What do you think about all of this? Did you struggle with your weight as a child? What did you need most from your parents? Sound off in the comments below or in our Diet community.