Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have two daughters, “Blake” (16) and “Kaylee” (13). Blake developed the habit of emotional eating to cope with stress in middle school, and during quarantine, she began buying lots of junk food and keeping it in her room to eat whenever she was stressed, doing homework, or even watching a show. We have always provided our kids with healthy meals and snacks while still enjoying junk food in moderation, and have modeled body positivity. But despite numerous talks with Blake about if there was anything we could help her with, she insisted everything was fine, she just liked snacking while doing boring tasks. Now, everything has gotten out of control.
At Blake’s most recent doctor’s appointment, her pediatrician told me that she’s gained a large amount of weight very rapidly and that he was concerned about the impact her diet was having on her quality of life—it had already made activities she previously enjoyed, like biking, a struggle for her, and could lead to more health issues in the future. After a long talk with him, Blake decided that she wanted to stop using food as a coping mechanism, and start helping us cook and prep balanced meals, which she began doing a month ago and says that her relationship with food is already improving.
However, around the same time, Kaylie’s prescription for ADHD meds increased, and while she is having a much better time in school, the medication reduces her appetite, so she’ll pick at lunch but be starving in the evening, and will think nothing of polishing off a bag of veggie straws or plantain chips before dinner. We’re fine with it because these are fairly healthy snacks and fill the gap created by her lunch, but Blake gets irritated when her sister won’t “help her follow through on health goals” by not keeping snacks in the top cabinets so she can’t get them in the night or at least only eating Blake’s pre-made protein snacks. Kaylie is almost underweight, and if she didn’t struggle so much without medication I would take her off of it, so I want to allow her to continue her after-school snacking.
But Blake and my husband both say that we should be supporting Blake’s goal of eating healthier and cutting out processed foods and that it’s unfair to let Kaylie keep “unhealthy” snacks in easy reach of everyone. I am sick of finding crumbs in bedrooms and I want both of my kids to understand that food is fuel, and to eat a healthy amount of it each day, whether it’s from potato or burrito bowls. How do I handle the current “snack war?” I want to support both Blake’s initiative to eat a more balanced diet and ensure that Kaylie actually gets in nutrients!
—Sick of Snack Sniping
Dear Sick of Snack Sniping,
I know you want what is best for your kids and their health, but if you truly want your children to view food as fuel for the body… this is not the way to do it. Food as fuel, which is actually a great, nutritionist-approved concept, is fundamentally about having a neutral attitude toward what you eat. What I’m hearing instead is a lot of value judgment around food happening in your home.
We are deeply imprinted with this rigid mentality around food in our society, so this is not surprising. But today, most nutritionists and dieticians agree that labeling foods as “good” and “bad,” and attaching morality to our food choices, is actually exactly the kind of thinking that can ultimately lead to disordered eating. I feel a little like a broken record, but children shouldn’t be focused on food restriction or attempting to change their body shape. I know from experience that this is potentially setting them up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and weight cycling, which many researchers believe may be the cause of more health problems than being overweight.
Having a doctor express concern about Blake’s weight gain probably seemed scary, but you need to remember that fatphobia is ingrained in the medical field, and vague proclamations about potential “health issues in the future” are no substitute for actual measurements of health like bloodwork. If Blake’s fitness level, which by the way is not synonymous with her weight, is keeping her from enjoying physical activity, I think it’s great to focus on helping her be more active. There are other non-weight-related health factors you can emphasize like how her body feels, ways she can get stronger, understanding what gives her energy, and brainstorming how to incorporate joyful movement into her day.
I’m also noticing a contrast between how you are treating your two children—Kaylie’s afterschool snacking is OK because she is thin, but Blake’s is a problem because of her weight gain. You also seem very concerned about Blake’s health, but less about Kaylie’s, despite the fact that being underweight comes with its own health risks. If food is fuel, both children should be allowed to fuel their bodies, regardless of their body type.
Finally, the focus on Blake’s health seems to be missing one crucial element: concern for her mental health. You said she is experiencing stress in middle school and is using food “to cope.” What exactly is happening that she is having so much trouble dealing with? And if she truly is turning to food as a coping mechanism, a therapist may be a lot more helpful than a diet, so she can learn better methods for dealing with stress than trying to numb or comfort herself with food. Regulating the food itself is not going to treat the underlying issue. And in my opinion, the immediate mental health issues she may be dealing with are much more concerning than some vague future physical health issues that may never manifest.
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