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The Wrong Way to Manage Your Child’s Weight

child weight

Last week 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 its (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 healthy weight 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.

fearless feedingYou 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.

If you are a parent looking for a positive way to feed your child, without shame, blame, punishment, food restriction, deprivation or control, then you need to 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?

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  1. Thanks for addressing that article, Jill. As you say, we can use it as a learning tool for what NOT to do. Also key is how we as moms deal with food. I know of few women who haven’t dabbled in dieting or struggled here and there with weight. But we need to demonstrate healthy habits and be good role models, something I know you’ve written about and I posted about last week

  2. I loved this article, for various reasons I’ve struggled my whole life with weight gain and loss, pre-diabetic, etc, etc.

    As a result my husband and I have always tried to maintain a healthy attitude when it comes to food with our children, telling children they are fat, shaming them, blaming them etc, etc, is horrific and I’m completely gob-smacked that Vogue would publish an article like that where children are going to be bullied into the perception of a correct image.

    As you’ve already mentioned in your article the ramifications of what she’s done to her daughter are huge. 🙁

    I have two daughters and a son, I hope that one day they will be normal, well-adjusted people, who know what to eat, why to eat, and be happy when eating.


  3. Great post! (And thanks for stopping by my blog.) I was also horrified by the story in Vogue. The poor kid. Looking forward to your book.

  4. I can’t tell you enough how much I agree with what you said. How I wish that this information was available to my parents when I was a young girl. I was 10 when I developed a VERY unhealthy body image…and I was not an overweight little girl.

    30+ years and a million diets later, I weighed my top weight of 381 lbs last December. I finally had enough and gave up sugar, fast food, and soda right in the middle of the holiday season. 3 1/2 months later, I’ve lost 33 pounds…12 inches…and 1 size. (follow my progress at

    Healthy living, self esteem, and confidence are so vitally important to learn as children…thank you so much for helping parents realize how truly important this is!


  5. Thank you for this thoughtful post- as a pediatric dietitian working with a variety of children, this focus on fostering a healthy relationship with food is much appreciated!

  6. Great post, Jill! I just re-tweeted it. I like the way you write so non-judgmentally, with empathy for the parents. Parents like Dara-Lynn Weiss seem to want to do the best for their kids, but have no clue how so they make huge mistakes. We all need to start looking at the big picture and all the points you mentioned, not just calories and exercise.

  7. Jill, these are excellent points and I fully agree. I appreciate the positive spin in terms of how we can use this to teach parents and families rather than focusing on what was done incorrectly. This story is disturbing to me on many levels and it’s been fascinating to follow the commentary.

    I’m a fan of both you and Maryann and can’t wait for Fearless Feeding!!

    1. thanks for reading, Sam. Yes, I think it’s human nature to point out and get caught up in the negative, but that doesn’t move us forward!

  8. Thank you Jill for shedding light onto this important subject. Parents need to know the real dangers of following this “Tiger Feeder” approach. Children should be raised in a feeding environment that is positive, nurturing, non-restrictive and promotes intuitive eating where nutrient rich foods are center stage. This parenting feeding style is encouraged in the ‘Eat, Play, Love’ webinar, in which you share wonderful wisdom for parents:
    I can’t wait to get my own copy of Fearless Feeding!

    1. Ashley, thanks for mentioning the Eat, Play, Love webinar–a good resource for parents to check out!

  9. Great post Jill! As a fellow RD and one who works with adolescents and adults with eating disorders, i was very disturbed by the article in Vogue. Parents need better education on how to feed their children and you are a wonderful resource for them. As a new mom, despite being in the field myself, I can learn a lot from you about how to feed my daughters in the healthiest way – and by that I mean for their emotional health.

    1. I am so happy to be of help! Your babies are adorable, by the way! 🙂
      Yes, what i like about the term “feeding” is that it takes into account a broader perspective than just the word eating. for kids (and I assume adults too), there’s a lot behind the decisions we make with regard to our health and eating. The food focus is too narrow!

    1. One size does not fit all though! My son is autistic and severely over weight. I have brought him up to enjoy healthy food but he wants to constantly eat other stuff too. So he will not listen to my pleads, he can’t help it! Are you suggesting I do nothing and let him get diabetes or heart disease? You cannot put all children in a neat little box. There are many kids out there like mine and its nothing to do with anything I’ve done or not done. I feel insulted that you would look at my child and say oh there’s a mother who doesn’t know how to feed her child!!!!

      1. Hi Lorraine,
        I completely understand that one size does not fit all. I take care of a lot of different children with a lot of different challenges. “Do nothing” has never been my approach, but positive feeding and good nutrition with structure and boundaries is always part of the equation in my mind. This post really touches on the negative effects of restriction…one can positively manage their child’s eating and weight status without restricting food–restriction often leads to a desire for the restricted food.