To the Family Member Who Worries I Am Not Helping Your Loved One’s “Weight Problem”

To the family member who worries I am not helping your loved ones "weight problem"
image by Representation Matters

Dear Family Member,

I understand your fears. I get it. You want the best for your loved one. You want him or her to have the best and healthiest and fullest life possible. I do too.

You believe that helping your loved one to lose weight will help achieve these goals. Here, I disagree—I will explain below.

You believe that weight loss will lead to better health. You have heard the scary information about the dangers of obesity and know there is an all-out war on obesity. Or you have seen or heard your loved one ridiculed or judged negatively by peers because they didn’t conform to a certain size.

 

However, did you know that:

I have been working in the field of eating disorders since my training at a bulimia research lab in 1991. When I first learned to treat binge-eating disorder, a course of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for binge eating was expected to be followed by a course of behavioral weight loss. However, since that time we have learned that behavioral weight loss doesn’t work. And while CBT for binge-eating disorder can be successful, it rarely leads to significant weight loss, even among those considered to be in an “overweight” weight category. However, CBT does lead to cessation of binge eating and prevention of further weight gain, which are lofty goals in their own right.

I firmly believe that bodies are meant to come in a variety of shapes and sizes. We are not all meant to be Size 0 or 2 or 4.

Take shoe size: while the average woman today has an 8 shoe size, most do not—some will have size 5 and others will have size 10. Shoe size has a normal distribution within the population.

Just as with shoe size, so it is with body weight. Every body appears to have a set point, a weight at which it functions optimally. This set point is not destined to be at the 50th percentile for every person—some will be heavier and some will lighter. Repeated attempts at dieting seem to increase a body’s setpoint, which is the opposite of what most dieters are trying to achieve.

I no longer support attempts at deliberate weight loss because I have come to believe it is not only fruitless but in fact harmful. Every day in my practice I witness the destruction left by the war on obesity and failed diet attempts. I see the carnage of past dieting, weight regain, shame and self-loathing in the form of disordered eating and intractable eating disorders. Against this backdrop, I believe that above all else, my duty to your family member is to not harm them.

There is no magic solution. Failing to fit the thin mold can be a burden. I wish I could wave a magic wand and have your loved one’s body transform into one that would not be stigmatized, would be celebrated, and would fit into all spaces. But I can’t change your loved one’s genetic body destiny, just as I can’t change any person’s ethnic background or skin color to conform to the privileged group. And I believe the solution is not to change your loved one’s body to conform—the solution is to fight to end weight stigma and the oppression of larger bodies.

Here’s what I can do:

  • I can help your loved one recover from an eating disorder, using evidence-based treatments backed by scientific research.
  • I can help your loved one work on accepting and appreciating their body and all its capabilities.
  • I can help your loved one unfetter themselves from self-imposed rules and restrictions and live a fuller life.
  • I can help your loved unburden themselves from shame and self-loathing.
  • I can help your loved one to advocate for themselves if he or she needs accommodations from a world that was not built to accommodate his or her body.
  • I can help your loved one learn to stand up to weight stigma and bullying.
  • I can help your loved one request and receive respectful health care.
  • I can help your loved one improve their relationship with food so that eating and social situations are enjoyable.
  • I can help your loved one achieve peace.

If you want these things for your loved one, please let me do what I was hired to do—guide your loved one to healthiest, best, and fullest life possible. Please examine the basis of your own hope that your loved one will conform to the thin standard. While I know this comes from a good place, it’s not pointing to the right destination. There are happier places to land. There is much work to be done. We all have weight stigma.

To learn more, I suggest reading the following articles:

Interested in Weight Loss? I CAN’T Help You. Here’s Why

Are We Setting Recovery Weights Too Low?

Is Weight Suppression Driving Your Binge Eating?

How Health at Every Size Can Help With Eating Disorder Recovery

FBT Meal Strategies Gleaned from Ziplining

Understanding and Responding to Your Youngster’s Fear: A Metaphor

FBT Meal Strategies Gleaned from Ziplining
The author on the zipline

I often explain to parents that for a youngster suffering from an eating disorder, a meal can feel dangerous – like jumping out of an airplane. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to (almost) live out this metaphor on a family vacation. This experience led me to reflect on the experience of both the teen and their support team:

Recently our family went zip-lining for the first time. I was terrified. But as I was zip-lining, I paid close attention to how I felt and behaved and what helped me get through the experience.

Despite the excitement I had felt when we initially planned the activity, when I saw the length and height of the zip-lines, I had misgivings. I imagined that this is how many of my patients must feel before many meals. Imagine, though, that they face this fear up to six times daily!

During the zip-lining adventure, I felt most comfortable going after my children and before my husband. Even though once I was on the zip-line I was alone, rushing through the air at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, so fast my eyelashes were blowing into my eyes – somehow taking the plunge in this order made me feel like I was snugly nestled between them.

The calm and assurance of the line attendants was comforting. They knew what they were doing. At every single end of each of the eight lines, I felt compelled to tell the attendant that secured or unstrapped me exactly how terrified I was. I was relieved when they joked and told me they knew I would be fine. I also felt supported when my kids received me at the end of each line and reminded me that the next one wouldn’t be any harder. Knowing that my kids and husband were there with me and that we were doing it together made this fear something I wasnt facing alone.

So, how does this apply to supporting a young person with an eating disorder?

Physical Placement of Support

During the zip-lining adventure, I felt most comfortable going after my children and before my husband. One of the basic premises of FBT is that the support of the family during mealtimes provides a supportive environment for recovery. Parents often find that sitting at the table on either side of their adolescent during mealtimes provides additional structure and support. It is an act of love to support a child through a meal when they are terrified.

Confidence

If the zip-line attendants had expressed hesitation or anxiety about what they were doing I probably would have refused to go. Calm and confident parents inspire trust in their children, making it easier for them to eat. Sometimes parents have to fake it until they do feel confident.

Validation

At every single end of each of the eight lines, I felt compelled to recount my terror to the attendant that secured or unstrapped me. I didn’t need to hear any response in particular. It just relieved me to express how scared I was and to know that the attendants heard me. When parents hear their child say he or she doesn’t want to eat, it is more helpful to simply hear it and stay calm than it is to get upset and try to argue or reason.

Reassurance

If the zip-line attendants had tried to reassure me by giving me detailed factual information about the strength of the lines and so on, my attempts to parse this information in my state of anxious activation might have only increased my anxiety. Parents can empathize with the fear and express confidence that their adolescent will be okay. “I know you are scared. I know you can do this.” Parents know their youngster and know whether joking will work. It is usually best to avoid getting into the content of the fear, such as how many calories are in the food, why they need fats in their diets, etc.

Togetherness

I also felt supported when my kids received me at the end of each line and reminded me that the next one wouldn’t be any harder. Knowing that my kids and husband were there with me, and that we were doing it together, made this fear something I wasn’t facing alone. The presence and support of parents and siblings and extended family during and after meals is critical.

 

At the end of my zip-lining experience, my nerves were spent and I felt exhausted. But, I was happy and proud I had faced my fear with the support of family. In the far more essential activity of eating, families can provide similar support to make fears bearable and provide an environment that allows teenagers with eating disorders to recover and flourish.

Parents usually get the best results when they are like the zip-line attendants: calm, empathizing with the fear, and never engaging the source of the fear (in this case, the eating disorder). Avoid getting pulled into the content of the eating disorder thoughts. When your adolescent says they are worried about the caloric content of food, think about what they are really expressing: their anxiety about eating. It is much better to empathize with how scared they are than to debate whether food is healthy for them (spoiler alert: it is).