Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Doctors and weight: Help without harming

by Ellyn Satter, MS, MSSW, Dietitian and Family Therapist

To prevent child overweight, teach parents to follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Parents do the whatwhen, and where of feeding; the child does the how much and whether of eating. You do not have to persuade parents of a child obesity or overweight diagnosis. Instead, teach them to follow sDOR throughout the growing-up years. Routinely examine longitudinal growth charts, not to diagnose “overweight” or “obesity,” but to detect growth inconsistency, an early indication feeding problems. Even if the child’s BMI doesn’t exceed the 85th or 95th percentile cutoff points, use abrupt, rapid weight acceleration or deceleration as an indication to do trouble-shooting with the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding.

  • Are parents being consistent about maintaining the structure of pleasant family meals and snacks?
  • Are parents avoiding interfering with the child’s prerogatives of determining what and how much to eat of what parents provide?

The handout, Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming, summarizes Satter-division-of-responsibility-based child weight intervention. It is also available in Spanish.

Obesity intervention doesn’t work

Even if you are able to launch ambitious, multidisciplinary, behavioral and even family-based approaches, that data shows that you can expect to produce only “small and highly variable” weight loss. According to the 2016 US Preventive Services Task Force review,1 behavioral interventions of 26 hours or more produce weight losses of a miniscule 0.2 zBMI. For policy makers and consensus-arrivers, child obesity prevention is about eating the right food and avoiding the wrong food, with a bit of “restrict portion size” and “move more” thrown in. These recommendations are all theoretical. As the Task Force found, even ambitious, long-term efforts to get kids to eat the “right” food and not eat the “wrong” food doesn’t slim them down. Moreover, only half of adults can follow this drab and negative advice for themselves, let alone for their children, and they feel bad about it. Here is the advice and where it comes from:

  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages.1,2,3,4,5
  • Encourage fruits and vegetables.1,2,3,4,5
  • Encourage low-fat dairy foods and whole grains.4
  • Limit portion sizes.1,2,3,5

Parents don’t want to be food cops

Parents are reluctant to accept an obesity diagnosis for their child,6 and no wonder! Parents want to nurture, and they know that what comes after the obesity diagnosis is their being food cops: No more relaxed and enjoyable family meals, holidays, and birthday parties; Lots of struggles to get their child to eat vegetables, to eat less, to stay away from high-fat, high-sugar food. Parents become food cops even when you try to soft-pedal by saying  “watch what he eats,” or “follow the Food Pyramid,” or “follow MyPlate,” or “don’t let him eat so much starch—so many sweets—so many fried foods.” Or even worse, go on to say to the child, “you need to be healthy,” or “wouldn’t you like to be better at sports?” At the next appointment, the parent doesn’t meet your eyes and the child’s weight gain has accelerated. Or parents and children simply don’t show up.

Some parents refuse to be made into food cops. They tell you: just-don’t-mention-weight! Their intuitive unwillingness to become controlling with feeding is backed by evidence: children who are labeled overweight feel flawed in every way—not smart, not physically capable, and not worthy.7  Five to nine year olds characterized as being at risk for overweight ( ≥85th BMI percentile) say they eat only a little bit on purpose so they don’t get fat.8 That’s pretty sad, isn’t it? Children are entitled to be free from worry about eating, moving, and weight. Children who are perceived as being overweight, by parents and/or themselves, become fatter in later life.

Don’t do nothing at all

In the midst of its food advice, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) essentially recommends the division of responsibility in feeding: “Empower parents to promote children’s ability to self-regulate energy intake while providing appropriate structure and boundaries around eating.”

You can do what the policy-makers say, just do it so it helps. In the midst of its own right-and-wrong-food advice, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) puts forth Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR), although not by that name: “Empower parents to promote children’s ability to self-regulate energy intake while providing appropriate structure and boundaries around eating.”4  sDOR encourages parents to manage the what, when, and where of feeding, and to let children do the how much and whether of eating. To translate, consider this advice from the handout, Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming and the book of the same name.

  • Have regular, reliable, and rewarding sit-down family meals and sit-down snacks. This would be AAP’s “appropriate structure and boundaries around eating.” The rewarding part is important. Consistently providing family meals is a lot of work. Parents who are encouraged to provide food the family enjoys get intrinsic reinforcement for making meals a priority.
  • Include a variety of good-tasting, wholesome foods. Families who eat regular meals get around to including fruits, vegetables, and other wholesome foods. And they eat them because they enjoy them, not because they have to.
  • Include “forbidden foods” in meals and snacks. Making sugar-sweetened beverages a sit-down beverage, rather than one to be carried around, limits consumption. A lot. Giving a time and place to enjoy high-sugar, high-fat snack foods also limits consumption. More importantly, children come to regard high-calorie, low nutrient foods and beverages as everyday food that they consume the same as other food: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
  • Trust the child to decide what and how much to eat from the food parents provide. The food cops emphasize limiting portion sizes, which is, of course, a form of restriction. Children whose food intake is restricted get afraid of going hungry and are prone to overeat when they get the chance. Children whose parents follow sDOR do a good job of managing their own portion sizes: they eat as much as they want, then stop, even in the middle of a bowl of ice cream.
  • Forget about encouraging “slimming” foods. The evidence doesn’t support recommending low-fat dairy foods.9  Whole grains and fruits and vegetables are nutritious, but they aren’t slimming.

Focus on the parents’ feeding, not the child’s eating   

Interventions that are particularly unsuccessful teach children to restrict their own food intake. Discourage limiting how much children eat, by children or parents.  Instead, encourage parents to do a good job with feeding. Be persistent in your encouragement, and keep your nerve. It takes parents time to establish family meals and more time to stop interfering with what and how much their child eats. sDOR is working when family meals are pleasant and the child is relaxed and positive about eating. Keep your nerve about weight as well. Until the middle grades, children have a greater than even chance of slimming down.10,11  In the process of making change on behalf of their child, many parents improve their own Eating Competence. Parents who are Eating Competent follow sDOR12 and their children show better nutrition profiles.13 The Joy of Eating translates sDOR in feeding children into guidelines for adults’ feeding themselves.

  • To prevent child overweight and obesity from birth, support parents in following sDOR.
  • To treat child overweight and obesity at any age, restore sDOR and trust the child’s own homeostasis to restore appropriate growth.

 The 7-minute intervention

Set up sDOR-friendly office routines







  1.  O’Connor, et al, Screening for Obesity and Intervention for Weight Management in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Evidence Review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. 2016.
  2. Barlow SE, and the Expert C. Expert Committee Recommendations Regarding the Prevention, Assessment, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity: Summary Report. Pediatrics. 2007;120(Supplement_4):S164-192.
  3. USDA, FNS. Maximizing the message: Helping moms and kids make healthier food choices. FNS-409. 2012 http://www.fns.usda.gov/core-nutrition/maximizing-message. Accessed May 8, 2015.
  4. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nnutrition. Prevention of pediatric overweight and obesity. Pediatrics. 2003/2007;112:424-430.
  5. USDA, USHHS. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DietaryGuidelines. Accessed May 8 2015.
  6. Laster LE, Lovelady CA, West DG, et al. Diet quality of overweight and obese mothers and their preschool children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(11):1476-1483.
  7. Davison KK, Birch LL. Weight status, parent reaction, and self-concept in five-year-old girls. Pediatrics. 2001;107:46-53.
  8. Shunk JA, Birch LL. Girls at risk for overweight at age 5 are at risk for dietary restraint, disinhibited overeating, weight concerns, and greater weight gain from 5 to 9 years. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104(7):1120-1126.
  9. Satter E. Family Meals Focus #98. Should you put your child on skim milk? 2016.
  10. Whitlock EP, Williams SB, Gold R, Smith PR, Shipman SA. Screening and interventions for childhood overweight: a summary of evidence for the US preventive services task force. Pediatrics. 2005;116:e125-e144.
  11. Serdula MK, Ivery D, Coates RJ, Freedman DS, Williamson DF, Byers T. Do obese children become obese adults? A review of the literature. Preventive Medicine. 1993;22:167-177.
  12. Tylka TL, Eneli IU, Kroon Van Diest AM, Lumeng JC. Which adaptive maternal eating behaviors predict child feeding practices? An examination with mothers of 2- to 5-year-old children. Eat Behav. 2013;14:57-63.
  13. Lohse B, Satter E, Arnold K. Development of a tool to assess adherence to a model of the division of responsibility in feeding young children: using response mapping to capacitate validation measures. Child Obes. 2014;10(2):153-168.


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