On not being fed enough as a child.

This is one of the painful truths of my job: discovering that sometimes children, especially fat kids, or kids whose caregivers suspect they will one day be fat, don’t get fed enough. Sometimes those kids grow up and become my clients.

Sometimes considerable abuse and neglect in other domains comes along with being underfed as child, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes kids grow up in a family system that looks perfectly functional to everyone, even to themselves, that just happens to not meet their most basic needs. Like getting enough to eat.

A lot of kids respond to being underfed by sneaking, stealing, bingeing at a friend’s house. It’s expected. It’s universal. It’s survival.

The unfortunate thing is, they often internalize the idea that these behaviours are proof of moral corruption or badness, or some underlying eating pathology or addiction. It’s not true, but I’ll tell you what is.

If you were one of these kids, you were not bad. You did what you had to do to survive.

I’m glad you did that. I’m glad you’re here.

There is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken or bad. You were born into a world where the people responsible for your well-being failed in one of the most fundamental ways. I don’t know if they were abusive or neglectful or forgetful or just wanted you to lose weight. The bottom line is, they didn’t feed you enough, and that was their fault, not yours.

Eating is a human right, and you’re a human. Even when you’re a kid.

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43 Comments

  1. G. Gibson
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Also consider children, like me, who were simply living in poverty. I heard a stand-up comedian make a joke once, that he was so poor he thought “US Government, Not for Sale” was a brand name, and I completely understood. And what we got: flour, butter, corn oil, sugar, and cheese, canned meat, beans and fruit, wasn’t exactly a healthy diet.

    Food insecurity as a child left me with a fear of being hungry as an adult. There was no food shaming or abuse, we just didn’t have enough to eat, period. To this day, I am overweight and have a tendency to hoard food. I do eat a lot healthier, though.

    • Posted March 15, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Definitely, positively, absolutely true. I have seen quite a bit of childhood poverty lingering with people as well. You do what you have to do to feel safe.

    • Hannah
      Posted March 16, 2016 at 12:43 am | Permalink

      Wow! Yes. I’m the same if there’s food I will eat it until it’s gone or I feel sick. I always cook too much food just In case there isn’t enough.

    • I_Sell_Books
      Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      My childhood exactly. Also American, grew up rural, no electricity or running water in Northern New England in the mid 70s. We were on welfare.

      Unless you’ve been there, people really don’t understand what it’s like to simply not have enough food, period.

      It’s a huge issue now in my family, as my kid has a belly, and my husband is very much a One Plate Per Meal and That’s It! person whereas I am, obviously, the My Kid Is Hungry! person. It’s difficult. My kid has said more than once that he’s ‘hungry all the time’, which he is (when he doesn’t get enough) and isnt’ (when he gets enough). I’m raising him to stop when he’s had enough, and that’s what he does – so that’s awesome.

      • I_Sell_Books
        Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Forgot to add that i was also, ironically, the fat kid! For serious, I was the fattest child and grew up to be a fat adult. Personally, I think my starvation genes kicked in when we moved to New England, because before then, before we were on welfare, I was actually a skinny kid…

  2. Katie
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Oh my goodness! I was one of those children! My parents didn’t fear me being fat, nor were they neglectful….we just didn’t have $$, and my busy, depressed mother resorted to easy, processed, cheap carbs to fill our tummies and kool ade to wash it down.

    We loved family get togethers because there was so much food! We would stuff ourselves. I always looked forward to visiting friends and getting treated to goodies we never could afford at home like fluffernutter sandwiches, combos, juice boxes, and drum stick ice cream cones.

    I always remained thin, genetics I suppose, but my health plummeted and is still out of whack even though I have been eating healthfully for 12 years now. I was so underfed and nutritionally starved, I was acne ridden, depressed, overwhelmed, anxious, slept up to 18 hours a day, and couldn’t finish college or hold a job. Today, I have ups and downs. Currently dealing with a down of inflammation, exhaustion, low blood pressure, etc.

    Please, please feed your children nutritionally dense foods.

    • Posted March 15, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      It’s so upsetting how common this experience is. Even when parents do their best, kids are often born into societies where ensuring everyone gets enough to eat isn’t a priority, at all.

    • Mich
      Posted March 17, 2016 at 2:42 am | Permalink

      Similar here. I haven’t been able to get enough sleep for years. When I was in jr. high, I only ever got 1 hr of sleep though, and I think that is due to the dieting that I was doing. Now my body is so messed up.

      My sleeping has caused my dad to bring out the snide comments about being lazy.

      I remember the acne and pimples all over my body. Those, too, are probably a combination of dieting and celiac, since whenever I eat gluten now, I gain 5 more boils. Working in retail has always left my legs in horrific agony, which my dad thought I was making up as an “excuse” to get out of doing work. Maybe it would be slightly better now having more vitamins in me.

  3. Sue
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    My family was one of those that looked very normal on the outside. But I was the fat daughter with 2 skinny siblings. Everything I ate was monitored and restricted. My siblings got to eat whatever they wanted, while I watched. I was given diet pills and put on diet after diet.My mother would buy me clothes in smaller sizes hoping that I would want to lose weight to wear them. Finally she just told me the stores didn’t carry my size and stopped buying me clothes. (After I got a job I found out that wasn’t true.) To this day, (age 61) I am hungry all the time. There is some kind of weird animal inside me that wants to gorge itself at buffets and church potlucks. Learning to tame that creature is hard and I haven’t always been successful. But I won’t ever forget how that girl felt!

    • Emgee
      Posted March 15, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      Me too. But we’re ok, you and me.

    • Meaghan
      Posted March 16, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I was the “fat” daughter too. My sister, who does not have a problem with weight (and never has) was allowed to eat whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. At least from my view point…

      To this day, my mom still buys me clothing in sizes I do not wear to encourage me to lose weight. I am 28.

    • Mich
      Posted March 17, 2016 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      Same here, my mom bought a beautiful winter coat a couple yrs ago on a trip to the USA, but bought it about 2 sizes smaller to “encourage” me to lose weight.

    • Courtney
      Posted March 17, 2016 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      I was the girl who developed early. Before it was clear that I was developing, I just started to look stocky, and my mom thought I was getting fat. She put me on a diet when I was 8 years old, and it absolutely messed up my eating patterns. I’m 43 now, and I still have trouble with this. I also struggle with wasting food, because I tend to fill my fridge with way more food than I could possibly eat before it goes bad.

  4. Mel P.
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    What do you recommend for those of us with exceedingly picky children and/or children with sensory issues who refuse nutritionally dense foods? It’s a tremendous source of guilt and worry for me, but I don’t want to set up a disordered relationship with food for them in the future by “forcing” them to eat certain foods. Besides, it won’t even work on my oldest child who will quite literally gag and vomit at the mere smell of an unwanted food. At this point, my younger child’s safe foods are limited to oatmeal, grits, popcorn, corn on the cob, the occasional bite or two of grilled meat, and cheese pizza (only if it has minimal red sauce). Of course, fast food chicken nuggets and fries are safe foods as well, but I can neither afford that on a daily basis, nor would I want to, although I see no problem with eating them occasionally.

    I’m afraid my children (ages 11 and 8) aren’t getting enough to eat, although they’re both within “normal” weight ranges for their height and age. They’re tired and cranky often. I’ve tried letting them shop for healthy food, cook with me, we have a fruit tree in our backyard that they watch bloom and ripen…it just seems like nothing works, and I end up encouraging them to eat a bowl of cereal because at least it has added vitamins and fiber.

    • Posted March 15, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      You can only do what you can do (and forcing should never be used…your job is to provide food, not to force-feed), but in general regarding picky eating, this: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/fmf/fmf89.php and this: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/htf/thepickyeater.php should provide some ideas.

      • Mel P.
        Posted March 15, 2016 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        Thank you!

        • Dayna
          Posted March 18, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

          If you’re on Facebook, please join “Mealtime Hostage – The Group.” We’re a support network for parents just like you. We also have adults who are picky or selective eaters. We would love to answer your questions and provide encouragement for you!

          And for other folks reading this, Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility has been a godsend in my life. It removes the stress from feeding/eating. Such a relief!

  5. Gracie
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post, I’m a little tearful here. I was kept on a really strict diet throughout my childhood and to this day I still find pictures of me as a kid really upsetting. Because all I see is a normal kid with puppy fat where I was being drilled that I was fat and basically didn’t deserve food.

    Just, thank you. This is one of those weird shameful things, cause as a fat person, it doesn’t feel right to go around saying that you were undernourished. Because the perception seems to be that yeah, if you were a fat kid you should have been put on a diet. Except I wanna scream from the roof tops that I wasn’t a fat kid. The messed up relationship with food that was forced upon me is what left me unable to regulate what I ate and lead to me being a fat teenager and a fat adult. If I’d just been treated normally I am certain I would not have been in the state I was in.

    It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of distance, but I feel like I’m finally building a better relationship with food. But it is hard work and a thing I shouldn’t be having to do as a grown woman.

    • Emgee
      Posted March 15, 2016 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

      Me too!

    • I_Sell_Books
      Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Me three!

      Put on a diet at 9 because the pediatrician felt I was gaining too much weight (we had moved in to town and I was back to eating regular meals)(so yes, weight gain occurred).

      I still dread going to the doctor. And I dread taking my kid to the doctor.

    • Courtney
      Posted March 17, 2016 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      Me too. I developed early, and my mom anticipated the “Dial a Meal” diet plan by several years. She gave me a calorie budget (no clue where the total came from). She gave me monopoly money that represented the calories I was allowed, and I essentially had to buy my food from her. Just typing that makes me feel hot and shaky all over. I remember getting so hungry that I would scream and cry about it. I have no idea how long I was on that diet, but I stole food for YEARS after that as a child, and I still have food impulse issues.

  6. Mary Afuso
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    When I was a little girl in the 70’s, I was the only fat kid in the house — I was the only fat kid in school. My mother tried to make us all eat what I “had” to eat, per Weight Watchers. So she made our mayonnaise and ketchup and tried to hide liver in our spaghetti. She did it out of love for me, but it traumatized all of us.

    school was worse. I had to hide when I ate because the kids and teachers watched me and commented on what big bites I took, or how I had too many carrots (yep) or how I ate everything in my bag. I was afraid to buy lunch at the cafeteria because the adults would take away parts of the lunch they didn’t think I should have.

    Today I have 3 kids. They all eat the same things and exercise the same amount. One is chubbier than his brothers. He’ll either grow out of it or he won’t but he will not have to be afraid to eat due to shame.

  7. Emgee
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Tearful here, too. Thanks so much Michelle. I also look at my grade school photos and see a pretty normal kid. I was on the grapefruit diet in about 3rd grade, and I can barely stomach the fruit now.
    Shamefully, I started sneaking straight white sugar, so that worked out well. I’ve yoyo dieted all my adult life. Now I’m no longer wiling to go hungry, so I’m now a fattie. I don’t like it, but I just couldn’t diet anymore. Trying to hear those satiety cues now, but it’s hard. But thanks for the love.

    • Cassandra
      Posted March 21, 2016 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      We were poor, and my mom had body image issues from my grandpa which she projected onto me. This meant that after-school snacks were not available, let alone encouraged. Once I was old enough to be on my own after school (age 8 if I recall), I made myself open-faced sandwiches of margarine, sugar, and cinnamon, as none of these ingredients would be noticed missing. If there was no bread, I’d have a handful of quick oats, or even flour.

  8. Becca
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Tears here as well. I did the Cabbage Soup Diet when I was nine and everything else under the sun after that. My bedroom was in the half-finished basement, so I learned to sneak into the unfinished part where the freezer housed all sorts of cookies and ice cream and at the right time of year, Christmas goodies. I look back at photos of me at 16, 150 pounds, thinking I was the heaviest thing on earth….. I wish I could snap my fingers and be 150 pounds again sometimes. So many years of messing with my metabolism trying to fix what was broke so long ago. Sigh.

  9. Kelly V.
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I can’t even articulate how much this resonates with me. I’m 44 and most days I still feel like that 10 year old girl on the diet. Always hungry. Never satisfied.

  10. Debbie
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I have never read and article about this and honestly didn’t know there were others like me. I am 58 and this started at about age 6. I stole, binged, snuck and even shaved of pieces of food so no one would notice. I was a normal weighted child but I was shaped like my mom. She hated her shape and so I got punished. I was starved, weighed, had to pee on keto sticks, got HCG shots and was given 500 calories to eat as a teen. And if that wasn’t enough, mom would weigh me and if the numbers were wrong the verbal abuse began. The biggest name I remember was fat pig. To this day I fight calling myself that name. Sometimes I feel like a part of me will never recover from this. Children deserve food. All food!!

    • Glutwin
      Posted March 18, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      My empathy goes directly to you, brave soul. How you suffered! Yes…you deserved food as a child and you deserve it now.

      • Debbie
        Posted March 28, 2016 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Thank you. I am so struggling with my fatness the last couple of days. I find I struggle taking care of me. I love caring for others, but to care for me seems exhausting and like why, I will still be fat no matter what I do. I feel lost!

        • Posted March 28, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

          I know it’s hard to feel this way about yourself, but remember, fat people deserve to be taken care of too.

        • I_Sell_Books
          Posted March 28, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that’s it, isn’t it? It’s as if you don’t matter at all.

          The struggle continues, minute by minute. I find it especially difficult with the hot weather coming on, because finding clothes that are comfortable and fit right is a nightmare.

  11. autumn
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    My friend’s grandmother made fun of me for this til the day she died. Once when I was in 4th grade she found me eating spoonfuls of peanut butter in her kitchen cabinet. I actually don’t remember the incident but she certainly did. She was never malicious about it, but definitely confounded. My dad, on top of never going and buying us kids food, thought I was going to grow up to have an unhealthy relationship with food and be fat.

    well, that happened. The more I read the more I realize how my thyroid issues may have been jump started during those crucial growing years in which, while I was at his house, I starved.

    at 28 I’m still trying to figure out how to recover.

  12. Krystale
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    These comments.
    So much to them.
    Suddenly me as a kid isn’t as alone as it felt.

    I was left to starve as an infant, the rescued and adopted. Although, then I was forcefed when I resisted food. Literally. I was fed over a toilet because I tended to puke. I learned not to when having to reeat to “stop wasting” became part of it. Teen years I was on a controlled “diet” because I was “fat.” I am indeed fat NOW, but I wasn’t then. I didn’t know. I was fat and “no ones loves a fat girl” was actually told to me like it was supposed to be wisdom that helped me.

    Turns out I had diverticulitis. Much healthy food actually really hurts.
    I’m hungry all the time. Also, apparently even on full “complete nutrition” by picline to my heart I don’t actually absorb what I need to like I should.

  13. Jennifer Rawlings
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    It’s only recently that I realized that I most likely started restricting way before I actually restricted to be thin. I grew up in a home with only “healthy,” “good,” “nutrient dense,” foods. There was very little I liked to eat, but that was all there was. We sat at the table until our plate was clean, sometimes for hours. I would drop food on the floor while my parents weren’t looking or put food in my mouth and then go to the bathroom to flush it away. I would throw away my homemade lunches at school and envy the kids with school lunches, or sack lunches with bologna on white bread and Twinkies. When at friends or relatives I would ask for food. When my parents were gone we went to the store to “stock up” for the day with ice cream, soda and candy. Any free money I had as a child went to food. I eventually started willingly restricting and living in fear of all the “bad junk food.” I now realize that my mom raised us in fear. She was trying to protect us from cancer which took her sister and dad within a few short years. I’m currently trying to change my own relationship with food and my children’s. I now allow all foods in my house. It is scary for me to watch my kids eat whatever and whenever they want, but I’m trusting that they will figure it out as long as they are getting enough.

  14. Bonnie Kauffman
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    That little girl from the 1950’s going to school with a half sandwich and an apple still lives in my very soul. My mother only did what she thought was needed to keep me from being overweight and knowing the heartache she had known as an overweight child and teenager. I was not abused and lived in a loving and nurturing family. I have never associated my BED (Binge Eating Dusorder) with my childhood. I was on diet pills at 9. In the 50’s that what doctors did even for children. I began very young to hide food, steal food, binge on food whenever possible, and start down a path that would eventually lead me to over 315 pounds at my highest weight….living all those years with that little girl inside mr trying to get filled to no longer be hungry.
    Thank you for this article. The 12-steps teach me that knowledge avails me nothing, but it is very freeing to have this “Road to Damascus” moment and put the pieces together and know that sweet baby girl was never bad or ugly or wrong. Perhaps in time I will be able to stop feeding her and just love and accept her.

  15. Meaghan
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    This is me, to a T. My mom told me when I was 8 or so, when I was making myself 2 packets of oatmeal that “that was more than any human being should ever eat”. I will never forget those words.

    I ate anything I could get my hands on, especially the endless poptart supply at my friends house where I would go after school regularly.

    I snuck food, hid it, binged on it, etc etc. I was a pretty normal weight throughout my childhood, but started yo-yo-ing when I was around 11 or 12. I am 28 now and I am still trying to fight the battle. I will get there.

  16. Ponytail Holder
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    I see myself in this, as well. Rarely allowed snacks, and when I was allowed, they were: fat-free yogurt, one slice of cheese, dry deli turkey, one apple (which made my gums flare up in reaction so I avoided them). Skim milk and cheerios for breakfast. Thank goodness my mom let us buy our lunches at school, I’m sure that’s where I met most of my caloric needs. We didn’t have enough food for seconds at dinner, and firsts were sparse: salad, a bit of meat, a spoonful of pasta. No dessert, and if we were ever allowed a treat, it was some kind of nasty “ice milk” or similarly low-fat option. My brother and I were both chubby, me moreso than him. My parents were divorced, and one Christmas when I was 10 or so, my dad decided he was going to give us a diet as our Christmas gift. Seriously. He had a very disordered relationship with food, and was constantly yo-yo dieting (he had been the chubby one in his family). He got extremely thin one year and thought he would “save” his fat kids similarly. I remember being really hungry when we visited him after that. Our meals were dry Jenny Craig burgers that you literally had to add water to in order to eat them (they were freeze-dried), and our snack was a bowl of plain popcorn with maybe a bit of salt. I used to love visiting my thin cousin’s houses because they had cookies in the cookie jar! and ice cream in the freezer! and ate mac and cheese for lunch!!! It was seriously like heaven. I could be full! They used to mock me for sneaking extra cookies and eating leftovers, though. So when I was allowed to eat to satiation, I was mocked, and I never lost weight when I was semi-starved. No wonder I hated childhood so much. Note that I ended up losing half my bodyweight from severe starvation in my teens, and my dad and family praised me for it. My mom was the only one that was worried about how my spine and ribs were starting to stick out. It screwed me up until my mid-20s, then I started gaining weight like gangbusters and now understand that I have an underactive thyroid, EDS, and lipeodema. Families, if you care about your kid’s health, don’t just focus on their weight. Take their whole health into consideration, including their mental health. It might be that your kid isn’t fat just to spite your sensibilities or shame you in front of your stylish friends, or something. And they might end up being fat adults, and everything you do to prevent that might just make their future health worse. Just as doctors shouldn’t practice weight-first medicine, please do not practice weight-first parenting.

    • Glutwin
      Posted March 18, 2016 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      +1…Brilliant comment.

  17. SalinaC
    Posted March 17, 2016 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I was put in my first diet in 2nd grade. I had been born with a cleft lip and palate, and for the first few years, I was over fed out of fear for my health. This was completely unfounded. Fast forward into elementary school, and I was no longer allowed to eat what everyone else ate. There were no desserts or snacks, no seconds during meals, and there were many foods that I was knot allowed small amounts of. Growing up in an Italian-American household, most of what I wasn’t allowed was pasta, even though that was typically the only option. By middle school, I was secretly bingeing in my room at night. A few years later, my mom had died and I had developed full blown bulimia with a preference for restricting for days before losing my mind and giving into the other behaviors. I have spent hours in the gym, day after day, and I have become terrified of and unable to tolerate the feelings of fullness as being full means I’ve broken the rules. I’m now almost 26 years old, I’m still fat, and I still have an eating disorder and likely will for the rest of my life. I also have PCOS, which makes weight loss of any kind (healthy or otherwise), extremely difficult. There was more than enough food in my house, I just wasn’t allowed to touch any of it.

  18. A Mark
    Posted March 17, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    sigh and the current “the world is ending ALL our children are obese” climate perpetuates things another generation. Strangely one of the definitions of OBESE is “over the 50 percentile in size for age” which by definition 50% of children will be!
    I commonly point out to mothers
    fussing over a child liking cookies or cake – I’m a dietitians daughter- I did NOT grow up on carrot sticks

  19. Glutwin
    Posted March 18, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Recent discoverer of your blog…and have been spending lots of time going through them one by one…all informative, intelligent and spot-on keen observations. This particular article resonates with me as well..but I would need to change the title to “On Not Being Fed Enough WITH Child”…When I went to France in my eighth month of pregnancy (less expensive for us ), I was told by the doctor that women in the US were allowed to gain too much weight in pregnancy…and that I would need to go on a strict diet for my final month. I remember being absolutely FAMISHED, was not over-bounds for pregnancy gain, and was ‘administered’ an extremely tiny-portioned ‘special for me’ (read yogurt and bits of steamed vegetables meal ) by my French mother-in-law, whilst all other table members received rôti de veau…cheese souffle etc…in French vs. US portioning.. yet in sufficient quantity to stave off hunger…I would describe what I ‘felt’ as a mix of deprivation and resentment.

  20. Ellen Wright
    Posted March 22, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I was raised by immigrants who had known profound hunger. Food in abundance came with guilt. I was very well fed and taught to eat every bite because there were people starving in Russia and Armenia and Africa and China and… to leave food on a plate was a moral crime. Over 70 years later I still cannot leave a crumb on my plate. Yes, I am overweight. Luckily I eat wholesome organically grown food and am remarkably healthy..

  21. Posted March 22, 2016 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Clients of mine tell me this is their childhood, and it led to bingeing, hiding food, and eventually a full-blown eating disorder. It is a devastating to me that I am the first person to tell them that what their parents did was wrong, and that they deserve food.

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