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Healing a Child’s Food “Obsession” (Part 1): Max’s Story

Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Blog Posts | 20 comments


IMG_3239This is not Max, but isn’t he cute? Now Max also enjoys treats as a part of a healthy relationship with food.

Helping Max Heal From Food ‘Obsession’

One of the most common issues I support parents around is the child who is preoccupied or “obsessed” with food. After a call with a client who has turned the corner, I was inspired to share their story (with permission and details changed). Max is on his way to becoming a competent eater. What this journal-style blog illustrates is the process, the doubt, the transformation, and that leap that parents make as they transition from trying to get a child to eat less to trusting the child to eat based on internal hunger and fullness cues.

Parts 2-5 of this series will begin to explore how to know if an interest in food is beyond typical, weight worries, why parents are told to restrict, why it backfires, and what I observe during the transition. At the end of each post following this one, there will be instructions to join a private Facebook group for parents struggling with this issue. While Max’s mom said, “No one understands,” she is far from alone. Most of my client calls are variations on common themes. One reason for this series is that I have longed for a parent support group for my clients, a safe online community of other parents who understand the challenges. This series will introduce the issues, and with a group of volunteer moderators, we are ready to give it a try. But first, the hope and Max’s story:



Max is 3 1/2 years old, the second child of a professional couple in San Francisco. He has a 5 year-old brother who is in the 10th percentile and not very interested in food. His parents are married. Max sleeps well and is highly intelligent and verbal. BMI is stable around the 85th% (“overweight” according to growth charts). His mother is slim, and his father has struggled with dieting and weight gain as an adult. The following are paraphrased highlights from notes told in Mom’s voice.

How it was:“His favorite teacher came to me with tears in her eyes. She said, “I love Max, but something is seriously wrong with him.” If food comes up in a story she is reading, Max spends the rest of the class talking and asking for food. He won’t stop. The teacher referred us to a child psychiatrist who said Max has OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), but we found a different one who is just going to do play therapy and see what comes up.

Max never says he loves me. He doesn’t hug or cuddle like his brother did. We never play. He’s always pestering for food. If my husband is cooking, Max is right there, crying and pitching a fit. He even kicks and hits when he gets really mad if we don’t give him food.

My friend is a psych nurse. She says it’s probably a medical issue. Max has seen an endocrinologist and everything was normal. We are supposed to have him tested for Prader Willi syndrome next.

When he was a baby, he was 70-85% for weight, and the doctor said he was big, so I worried. He seemed to eat so much. I thought if I don’t limit how much he eats, he’ll get even bigger. I was limiting from when he was about 6 months old. I remember him crying after every meal and bottle. Since then we’ve tried to control portions, push protein and veggies, tell him to eat slow, tell him about being healthy and eating healthy foods, to chew and enjoy food. We’ve seen a dietitian who recommended portion control and making him eat vegetables first, and talking about red-light and green-light foods, but that led to huge fits. He eats really fast— just inhales food then tries to get more. He’s always trying to get more. No one understands what I’m going through.

I was a chubby kid until about third grade, then I thinned down. I’m slim naturally, but my husband is getting bigger and is always on a diet. I don’t want my son to struggle like my husband has. My husband doesn’t know when to stop eating, maybe it’s genetic? My husband was athletic and lean until he started working in an office and so many hours. He is stressed and doesn’t have time to exercise, he misses meals and overeats.

The family reached ‘rock bottom’ when the entire Labor Day holiday revolved around Max crying for more food. Mom found a few blogs about the Division of Responsibility and jumped in with structure and letting Max eat as much as he wanted. Mom contacted me for support.

Early November 2013, First Call: We started about eight weeks ago letting him eat as much as he wants at mealtimes. I can’t watch. It makes me crazy. He eats SOOO much. I’ve snapped a few times. I just cry after meals. I see that he is  happier and more relaxed, but he’ll never stop eating. He eats until his tummy hurts. I don’t know if I can decide to let him be happy but obese or miserable and healthy. His doctor lectures us about diabetes and heart disease and mentioned food addiction. Maybe he’s just addicted to food?

He eats two full bagels with cream cheese, and they are big ones, I am full before I finish one, and he wants more food, pancakes, bananas… We can hardly get him away from the table.

Sometimes he sits and plays with his cereal after he’s eaten two bowls. Before, he would eat any food in front of him and never left any. Is this the beginning of him listening to his body?

He puts food on his plate and looks at me, almost like a challenge, just to get a rise out of me.

He screams within five minutes of snack being over. He screams for fruit and crackers. I know I’m not supposed to, but I give it to him. The first few weeks he would eat it and ask for more, but now half the time, he just carries it around.


Late November, second call: Max said “I love you” for the first time and he even climbed onto my lap. He stayed for about five minutes and let me tickle his back. Then his head snapped up and he said, “I’m hungry.” It was like he forgot for a few minutes and then remembered again. My heart just broke. I was so excited, but he can’t stop thinking about food.

The psychiatrist says she is seeing progress and we haven’t even told her what we are doing at home.

Mid December, third call: We hired a new babysitter, and we’ve told her a little of our struggles, but she hasn’t noticed anything! I was able to play Matchbox cars with Max for more than an hour while she cooked and helped my older son with his homework. This was the first time in Max’s life that we played like this. Ever. The first time someone was in the kitchen and he wasn’t right there.

I watched Max playing and having a blast at daycare. The phone rang, and it was amazing. He looked up, kind of blinked and said, “I’m hungry!”

My mother notices that Max is doing so much better at her house. She is totally supportive of our new approach. It’s still really hard to get Max to leave the table at home, but apparently there he hops down and plays. Why is Max doing this to me? He still pesters me for food and it makes me crazy. If I eat anything in front of him, he has to have it.

With my in-laws, he ate a huge meal and complained about his tummy hurting. I was so embarrassed. I don’t know how I can trust Max. I think he is gaining weight. It terrifies me. I know he’s happier but I worry about his health. I don’t think I can be okay with having a fat child. I feel stuck.

EMAIL: He’s eating huge meals, I can never trust him. He’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him but I can’t stop crying.

Strangers will comment about how thin his brother is, and how “big and strong” Max is. I know people pay attention to how much he eats, and he does have that little tummy. There is just so much talk about my kids and their bodies.

If I try to suggest dinner is over, he puts up a fit. I’m so embarrassed. I know my in-laws are judging me and Max.

January 2014, fourth call: Things are so much better at home. He never carries fruit around anymore. I have to really think about it or I forget how much progress we have made.

I wonder if my anxiety sets him off so he eats more, or if him eating more sets off my anxiety. I can’t tell which comes first. He still sometimes eats really big meals. Will he ever be ‘normal?’

We went to the grocery store and he saw the candy and immediately asked for it. I said, “Sure, choose a candy” and he picked M & Ms. Normally I would have told him he could have maybe five, and I know he would have pestered me the whole way home for more. He asked how many he could have and I said he could eat as many as he wanted. I honestly felt so relaxed, I didn’t care if he ate the whole bag. Then he ate about four or five and said he’d save the rest. I wanted to let him know he could eat them all and we could always buy more another time, but he just kept them in his hand and put them in the pantry when we got home. It blew my mind. I’m happy now that he is actually pestering me for those more ‘normal’ foods like candy or ice cream and not begging for more pasta or chicken.

He asked for seconds on noodles, and I gave it to him and I was cutting his meat and then he just said, “I’m done.” Pasta was the one food I thought he would never turn down, he always begged for more of it. I almost cried tears of joy.

 Late January, sixth call: I used to think he wasn’t affectionate. But he is. Max now climbs onto my lap, says, “I love you” all the time. Our psychiatrist says he’s doing great. No need to see us anymore.

I know now not to discuss eating at all, or tummies, or nutrition. The less we talk, the more relaxed I feel and the better he does.

We were all fighting nonstop before this. My husband and I were always fighting over Max’s eating. It’s so much better now I can’t believe it. My husband has noticed how much calmer I am too and more relaxed, but it’s still not easy. I try not to talk to him about it. He’s so sick of it. I think my husband is being better about not missing meals too.

I look forward to talking to you all week. No one understands this. I know this is the right approach now. My biggest challenge will be my in-laws. They are both slim and very focused on healthy eating and exercise. They think that being thin is the only way to be, and that being fat is a moral weakness. They talk about how much Max eats and his tummy all the time.

His teacher pulled me aside and said he is like every other kid now. He can share snacks, he plays, she thinks he is learning better too.

Getting him down from the table after dinner isn’t a problem anymore. Sometimes we share an apple after dinner and he just says, “I’m full.” And gets down. It feels like a miracle. I feel so grateful we did this, and I’m finally trusting that Max can learn to eat well and have a healthy body and be happy.


Stay tuned for part 2: Is Your Child ‘Obsessed’ with Food?

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  1. Anonymous

    Hi everyone. I am so happy that Max’s story was so helpful to so many parents; it was largely based on my experiences with my child. I will say the first three months of the transition have probably been the most difficult three months of my life (harder than medical school!) And I would not have been able to do it without telephone support from Dr. Rowell. But the changes were almost instantaneous and I celebrated every small improvement that I saw. Its been about 10 months since we have started DOR and its as if a have a different child at home. The things I complain about now, i would have only dreamed of a year ago (for example him wanting a second piece of cake at a party, BUT being satisfied with only 2 half-slices of pizza!!!! A year ago he would have wanted all 16 slices). Its truly amazing how quickly you forget the bad. Sometimes I have to remind myself of what went on to appreciate what i have now. But for those who are starting the process, be ready for a bumpy ride. Some days will be better than others (even 10 months out) and its crucial to have adequate support. My all-time low was when my 3 yo had seconds of pasta EIGHT TIMES in front of the entire extended family and screaming that his belly was hurting…But we got through it and are in a much better place now.

    • katja

      Thank you so much for chiming in and sharing how hard the process can be. So many parents give up when it gets tough since they don’t know or don’t have the support. I’m happy to say that the facebook private group Bon Appetites(see instructions at the end of the posts) seems to have a nice balance of support and encouragement for parents. Hearing from other parents who have been there is critical, and this email update will help. Thanks again!

  2. Rachel

    I cried with relief reading this, thank you so much for being vocal about this as my son is exactly the same. I’m in day 3 of the division of responsibility, having just returned from my parents house where it was my mum’s birthday and there was a table of party food. Usually I’d be in tears but I was much less stressed letting my 2 1/2 year old eat as much as he wanted. After about his 20th cocktail sausage we did have to slightly intervene as I knew they was cake coming but it was a reasonable conversation rather than a battle, which us a change. Looking at the size of his belly tonight I am feeling anxious if I’m really doing the right thing……i never would think a kid could put so much food away and worry it’s going to come back up again. I am terrified he’s going to get fat, he’s happy and heathly that’s what everyone keeps telling me, but I can’t help but be scared about it. Really am going to try hard to stick to the division of responsibility but so hard to watch!!

    • katja

      Oh Rachel, hang in there. There are many, many parents in the same boat, alas. I would encourage you to learn AS MUCH AS YOU CAN, fast! You are in the toughest part, stage I, where his eating may be worse before it gets better. My book, Love Me, Feed Me, and Your Child’s Weight, Helping Without Harming, and poking around the great articles online at Rarely children will vomit. Also, addressing your fears about fat and health are critical to trusting this process. I list books to read in my book, as well as on my website under the resources page. It took me a couple years of really reading and living this to get it. Be kind with yourself and your son through this process. Good luck!

  3. Pamela

    Thank you for sharing Max’s story. For 2 years my husband and I have been struggling with our son’s food obsession. Finally something we can embrace albeit as difficult as it is. I participated in your webinar through Adoption Learning Partners last Thursday and I found your insight and information so profound! We adopted our son 2 years ago when he was 2 From China. His preoccupation with food has not only been frustrating but it has also been an inhibitor to our crucial bonding process. So I cannot thank you enough. We also have a 9 year old adopted daughter who is the opposite. …extremely picky. We have been struggling with both ends of the spectrum. We are now serving dinner,with a small amount of dessert, family style. I am confused though about one aspect of it. ..if the child chooses how much, how does that work if you still put a time limit of 30-40 minutes? Our son often sits for an hour or more.

    • katja

      Glad the webinar was helpful! Sounds like you are on your way. I think my book Love Me, Feed Me will prove very helpful. I answer this question and so many more that will come up! Quick answer is that the routine will guide you. Roughly speaking 30-45 minutes for a meal is enough. He may protest at first, or eat quickly towards the end of the meal, but not too long from now, if he is allowed to eat until he is satisfied, and the meals come regularly, he will be able to leave food and finish. “In five minutes we’ll go play Legos” (or some other favorite activity.) Vs. “Dinner is over in five minutes.” Having a fun activity to transition to can help. Even if you have to come back to the dishes later, helping him transition to something he looks forward to can help. Reassure, “We’ll eat again soon” if there is another snack or meal coming. You could also move dinner closer to bedtime. Hope that’s a start! Good luck! It can feel like a long journey, but so rewarding. Keep us posted!

  4. jenny

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have a son who is like max. I don’t know what to do. He wasn’t always like this, he used to refuse food. When he was about 2 he started to get a little chubby, so what did i do? I restricted… and now he is obsessed with food. He would eat a whole pizza and still want more if i let him. Right now he does not get any chips or cookies or any junk food. He a slimmed down a LITTLE bit but now he is OBSESSED with food and says he is always hungry. I don’t know if i should let him pig out beacuse he is already obese

    • katja

      Start with reading the entire 5 part series. There is hope, but there is much to do beyond just letting him “pig out.” He may need to eat a lot for a time, but within a few months, in my experience with toddlers, they can learn to tune in again. My book offers a how-to in terms of transitioning back to him eating based on internal cues of hunger and fullness. (Love Me, Feed Me) another great read is Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. I suggest folks learn as much as they can before jumping in. If they don’t trust the research and the process, they often try for 3 or 4 days, get so scared and discouraged by the increase in intake (an expected reaction) that they give in and go back to restricting. Good luck!

  5. Jenny Islander

    Good Lord, this sounds just like an adult detoxing from years of dieting and recovering a normal, healthy relationship with food, except filtered through a preschooler’s mind. It’s almost painfully familiar.

    I actually came here to post this, though: I picked up my WIC warrants yesterday and was surprised and pleased to notice a new display on their office wall. It was the Division of Responsibility!

    • katja

      Yes and yay! It’s interesting to me to see so much info on feeding kids says something like, “trying to get children to eat more can make them overeat and become obese.” I have never seen it also mentioned that trying to get kids to eat more also often results in kids eating less and gaining less weight! In circles where the push is so much about obesity prevention, this side isn’t always covered… Thanks for sharing!

      • ML

        Hi Katja, to be clear the book you’d recommend for “food obsessed” kids is your love me feed me? I was lookg at it and got a big confused as to whether it only dealt with foster/adoptive children.

        This feels so familiar to me… my kids have always been big eaters, intrested, talking about it always, etc. my school aged child seems to have somehow “grown out of it” eating more sometimes, less others, but my other two not so much.

        My preschooler comes home in gastric distress most days from daycare where they eat family style and she servers herself, and she’s always talking about food. At home she seems to do better i.e. sometimes clears her plate some times asks for more but not so much but we don’t serve things family child.

        And the baby, who’s 15 months just wants to eat and eat… and screams for more or for what someone else has on his plate. For example if she’s had a cup of milk and a whole sandwich at lunch and has a pile of fruit on her plate that remains untouched (and I know she likes but would prefer milk or sandwich, do I make more sandwich?)

        Sometimes I feel trapped in a prison at home… not being able to get anything done or go anywhere because you never know how long snack or a meal is going to take…

        • katja

          Yes, it is my book. It’s ‘for’ adoptive and fostering parents, but it is 95% the same advice with all children. Foster and adopted children tend to have higher rates of food preoccupation because of more common histories around unsupportive feeding, and not getting enough food or at regular intervals. I reached out specifically to those parents who are told that their children often can’t be trusted with eating, or their child can’t learn to be competent eaters because or various reasons (malnourished, sensory, in-utero exposures etc.)
          I am seeing this increasingly within the general population with the concern about childhood obesity and portion control, restriction etc. I answer many of these questions in the book, but a great overall read would also be Child of Mine, Ellyn Satter and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. I would wonder two things first off: the schedule and the amounts/balance. Under age five, offering balanced/filling/tasty foods every 2-3 hours (every 3-4 for older children) may help. If a child goes too long it increases anxiety and appetite and can lead to overeating. Having fat, protein, carbs on offer helps too. Too often snacks are not enough. A daycare I looked at when my child was 18 months offered one pretzel stick and water. Similarly, cut up fruit or plain veggies (which is popular in this anti-obesity era) are not enough for many children, leaving them overly hungry. These are complex issues, but there is hope. It’s not easy, it’s still a lot of work, but nurturing and meeting their needs, and your own is possible. Also check out for excellent articles. Good luck!

  6. Sara Pearce

    Katja, this is a wonderful post – thank you so much. I have been struggling with my 10 year-old daughter’s sweets obsession, and have come to realize I’m the one who created it. I have been reading so much about the dangers of sugar lately – it’s all over the news. Saturated fat is back in, sugar is out. I feel anxious about it, and have been projecting my anxiety and control issues onto my kids. I’m so grateful for your work, and that of Ellyn Satter – I am learning so much.

  7. Amanda

    It could have been me writing this. My son is almost 3 and obsessed with food. Follows kids at the playground to trying to take their food, eating of the ground says he is hungry all the time, doesn’t play at playdates or parties just eats and eats and eats, stealing food out ot the fridge when I am in the shower,: I am exhausted and sad. He has always been very big 21 pounds at 5 months(just breastfed) and he stayed big and very tall. So since he eats so much he I have tried to limit how much he eats (advice from others) and I just realized 2 days ago that is what has caused his obsession: he has been hungry and I have said no. Poor child.
    we only eat healthy food but I have still said stuff like: no we don’t have more potatoes eat veggies instead and so on. I thought I was helping him but it must have caused this obsession. I feel horrible.
    Starting two days ago he gets to serve himself how much he wants ( so much I can’t watch sometimes) and eat as much as he wants. I still have to work on not asking if he is full yet, I am sure it causes him to eat more.
    Tomorrow I will leave fruit in a bowl on the table and he can can grab one when he is hungry (the way it should be, what have I’ve been doing!!!!) I feel like the worst mother ever but I listened to what I thought was right, I just wanted what was best for him. These last two days he has been happier than I have seen him in a very long time and I feel much better to let go if this struggle. One less thing to stress about and focus on what is wonderful about him. My husband of course have always said just let him eat, so I realize no I should have listened to him, for once:) Who knows, maybe my son will be a football player one day:)

    • katja

      I’m so glad that you are following your heart. We do the what we think is best until we learn it isn’t, then we try to do better, no? I think that’s the hallmark of a good parent, so you are by far, not the worst parent, and your little one can improve quickly. You are already seeing stage 1 signs of improvement, which I go into in my book. My book may be a helpful resource for you on this journey, as there will be questions and challenges. I wish you the best on this journey! It’s the tough thing when good parenting, and what many of the experts advise isn’t helping, to know where to turn. (I did another post you can search, I think ‘good parenting’ will get you there…) Portion control, pushing “healthy” foods and restricting other foods is “good parenting” but when it backfires for kids, it’s not helpful at all. So glad you figured out it wasn’t working and that you are finding what does work. There is nuance to it beyond “just let him eat”, but yes, once you decide what to serve, when and where, then “just let him eat” is about right 🙂 Hey, the guys have to be right every now and then, no? Be prepared, as the series said for things to get “worse” before they get better. Hang in there!

  8. Jodi

    Ever since my adopted child became verbal at the beginning of the year (he’s 3), he has been talking about food nonstop. We didn’t know what to do until this week my agency suggested I read “Love Me Feed Me.” Thank-you so much Dr. Rowell, the Trust model has changed my perspective completely. Thanks also to Max’s family and the others in the book who shared their story. For the first time in a long time I have hope that my son can become healthy and happy 🙂 Today was the first day of using Trust model and I’ve been crying all day. So hard to see your child anxious about food, eating until his tummy hurts yet wanting more, eating until he’s so tired he can’t lift his spoon anymore, but wanting you to feed him anyway. It’s a tough road ahead but by God’s grace and the wisdom in your book, I know I’m not alone and am equipped and empowered to face this battle.

    • katja

      Best of luck on your journey! Have you finished the book? 🙂 Learn as much as you can before you jump in. You don’t need to let him eat for hours on end. It’s okay to end a meal after 30-40 minutes. Have a fun activity to transition to. He might not like it at first, but he’ll get used to it. It will feel very different than an arbitrary portion control. “In five minutes, we’ll go play Legos!” (VS, “You’ve had enough, dinner is over…”) He may try to shove in as much as he can initially in those five minutes, but with time he will get it. Also read chapter 5, stages and what to look out for. Usually for 3 year-olds, if you can get things in place, you should start seeing some progress in 6-8 weeks. It takes longer if you go back and forth, or if there are parts of the process you are still working on. Any progress is good! Hang in there! Keep us posted, and let me know if you’d like some phone support.

  9. Elizabeth

    Thank you out there to Max’s mom for being ok sharing their family’s story. It takes a lot of courage as a mom to take something on like this in the face of judgmental family and society. Your story shows the result is greater love, connection, and healing.

    I look forward to Part 2!

    • katja

      Thanks, yes it was good of her to share! I always change details, but what is so remarkable to me is how similar this process unfolds. In my book, Love Me, Feed Me, I have a 2 page story similar to this for Bethany, a mom of a child who doesn’t eat and how scary it was waiting for the child’s appetite to kick in. I had no similar story for food preoccupation, and feedback has been that the doubts and successes told in the mom’s voice has been very helpful. I loved how this journey played out for Max’s mom, and I shared her story because of all the pieces: the teacher, the psychiatrist who thought it was OCD, the dietitian and the interventions that made things worse, family…and how Max is blossoming in so many ways.


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