My teenage daughter has put on a lot of weight. Can we encourage her to take control?

<span>Illustration: Artepics/Alamy</span>
Illustration: Artepics/Alamy

My daughter – about to turn 18 – has put on a lot of weight in the last two years. We have tried to talk to her about it, but she gets understandably defensive, and accuses us of fat-shaming her, which is the last thing we are doing. She is in a long term relationship, and he adores her, so she doesn’t think that there is a problem.

I am very concerned about her medium-to-long-term health, especially as she is probably going to start university and be away from the family very soon, so whatever control we have over her eating (and it’s not a lot) will be lost. Is there any approach that we can take to encourage her to take control over her weight? She is a very fussy eater, too, which doesn’t help with changes in diet.

Eleanor says: What I hear from you is worry about your daughter’s health. But without knowing what’s changed for her in the last two years, it’s difficult to say whether this worry is well placed.

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There is a great deal of evidence nowadays that health and weight bear only a loose relationship to one another. Some people are small, but don’t eat quality food and never exercise. Others are athlete-level fit, score better on blood tests than most, but carry more fat than you might want your daughter to. We now know it’s totally possible to have a high quality of life across a wide range of weights.

My point here is twofold. One, your daughter’s weight might not be a health concern. Two, even if it is, there’s a question about why it’s worth enforcing that particular concern with her.

As she grows up and leaves home, she’s going to face all kinds of threats to her physical wellbeing: not enough sleep, too much stress, too little exercise, too much alcohol – all of these can do a serious number on our bodies. (Poor quality sleep in particular is linked to heart disease and stroke, the same concerns people often cite when worrying about others’ weight). These aspects of our health, though, have the good luck to be less outwardly visible than our size.

The risk is, if you treat her weight as a particular site of “health concern”, you’ll accidentally communicate that what you’re really concerned with is how she looks. As long as other aspects of her wellbeing don’t get this same attention, it’s liable to feel like “health” is the gossamer excuse stretched over what is, in fact, an aesthetic demand.

You can see why that might make her bristle. It is unlikely that it’s escaped her notice that she weighs more than she used to, more than you’d like her to, and perhaps even more than others her age. Whatever her outward performance, there could be some complicated feelings below the surface. And this may be hard to watch, as a parent. Especially if we’ve had complicated relationships with our own bodies, it’s natural not to want our children to go through the same thing. But whatever she’s feeling, it won’t be helped if her parent seems to (even tacitly) express that what’s salient is how she looks.

I wonder whether it might be helpful just to aim at sincerely learning how she feels about this change.

A huge variety of factors could have contributed to her weight change. She might have gained weight without changing her eating habits. We don’t know exactly why this happens, but it does: even lab rats who eat the same carefully measured portions as their ancestors are fatter these days. Her hormones could have changed, or her medications. She could have started eating quite differently over the last two years, in which case it might be interesting to wonder why. A lot of life alterations or inner turmoil can show up on our plate – anxiety, depression, boredom, shifts in our self-image, social life or access to money.

Because there could be so many explanations, trying to hunt down the one true culprit is often an exercise in frustration. And if it’s you who’s pushing for that strategy, it’s you she’ll associate with that frustration.

Instead, there could be a real opportunity to connect with her here, by trying to learn more about how she feels about her changing body – and life.

You mentioned control a few times; encouraging her to take control of her weight, losing what little control you have over what she eats. You might miss this opportunity to connect with your daughter if you treat her weight in the first instance as a problem, with control as the solution.

This advice has been factchecked and approved by Accredited Practising Dietitian Fiona Sutherland of the Mindful Dietician.


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