Dear Fellow Mothers,
I met some of your adult daughters recently and would like to share the following composite sketch of them.
She's in her twenties and already quite accomplished: She's got a university degree and is working hard at her first job. She's intelligent, and ambitious, and sweet and funny – everything I hope my own daughter will be when she grows up.
She may be underweight, a healthy weight or overweight. (Truth is, I've met versions of your daughters in all three categories. Their stories are identical regardless of how much they actually weigh.)
[Read: Why You Shouldn't Weigh Yourself.]
The reason she came to see me was to find out the answer to this question: What am I supposed to eat?
Here's what she told me: You – her mother – have been weight-conscious your whole life. Since she was a little girl, she felt like she was on a diet vicariously through you – eating diet foods, feeling guilty when she ate sweets and warned about getting fat overtly or subtly, through your critiques of other people who were.
Now, she staves off hunger with coffee and fiber bars to delay having meals as long as possible because she's afraid of eating too often. Then, she succumbs to a meal of lettuce and air – and feels guilty when she's hungry an hour later.
[Read: A Shame-Free Food Lifestyle.]
By the time dinner rolls around, she's so starving that she can't control herself and eats the entire bread basket or a huge bowl of pasta. She's scared that this means she's a binge eater. She is worried about her birthday next week and asked my permission to have cake with her friends at her own party. And she's dreading coming home to see you this weekend because of what you're going to say to her about her weight.
Under your watchful eye, your lovely little girl grew into a woman – and acquired most of the requisite motor and social skills. But despite everything you have taught her, your twentysomething daughter never learned how to eat. She doesn't know to eat when she feels hungry. She doesn't know to stop when she feels full. She doesn't know it's OK to eat real food with actual calories. Your daughter – a grown woman who now pays her own rent and holds a degree from a top university – has no idea how to feed herself.
[Read: Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]
Here's what I told her:
You're probably not a binge eater: You're just really, really hungry. And I'll bet if you ate real food at breakfast and lunch – a meal with actual calories from protein, and some carbs, and some fruit or veggies and a little bit of fat – these evening "binges" would disappear overnight. If you are hungry again three to four hours after a meal, then you should eat again. If you are hungry one to two hours after a meal, it means you didn't eat enough the first time. And yes, you should have cake at your birthday party. Dietitian's orders.
I also told her this: You are healthy, and you are beautiful. Your mother's comments about your weight and your eating habits have nothing to do with your weight or your eating habits. They have everything to do with your mother's own weight and her own eating habits. It can be less painful for women to deflect attention onto other people's weight than to try to control their own, and that's probably what your mother is doing.
Here's what I wanted to tell you: If you truly want to spare your daughter the pain of struggling with her weight and self-image, the best thing you can do is to keep your mouth shut about her weight and appearance. Physically bite your tongue if you must. And while you're at it: Stop obsessing about your own when she's around, too. Here's why: Your daughter is smart enough to know that when you complain about your body, it's an unspoken way of commenting on hers, too.
When parents make specific comments about a child's weight or appearance – "fat-shaming," as it's known – the child may be at increased risk for becoming obese or engaging in disordered eating habits such as binge eating; she's also less likely to succeed at weight loss if she's already overweight.
A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that teens whose parents discussed their weight with them were significantly more likely to diet or engage in disordered eating behaviors compared to teens whose parents who discussed healthy eating with no mention of weight or appearance – or didn't discuss eating or weight at all. This finding held true for teenagers who were not overweight as well as for teens who were.
If you truly want your daughter to learn from your experience – and prevent her from going down a long and painful road of yo-yo dieting and disordered thoughts and behaviors surrounding food and eating – then model truly healthy behaviors for her.
Feed yourself real, nourishing food in portions sufficient to satisfy your hunger – and don't assign positive or negative character values to yourself when eating it. Nurture your body – perceived flaws and all – with sufficient exercise and sleep, and don't berate it for not fitting into a pair of jeans or looking like it did before childbirth.
Whether you love how it looks or not, your body is the only body you get.
Hungry for more? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, concerns, and feedback.
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.