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Eating disorders develop from a culmination of different risk factors, including genetics, interpersonal relationships, other related mental illnesses, environmental influence, etc. Although recent research suggests a strong emphasis on the hereditary nature of eating disorders, a large portion of eating disorders develop due to environmental impact.

By: Kaitlan Tracy

This influence can include anything from a group of people at school, your teammates in the sports you chose to play, to the people who live with you in your home. Examining trends in generational eating disorders, genetics, and interpersonal impacts can potentially prevent the development of eating disorders in family members living with someone who has been previously diagnosed.

As scientists perform more research to investigate the role of genetics in eating disorder development, they are finding hereditary inheritance to be an increasingly important risk factor. A research article published in 2019 found strong genetic associations in family studies, twin studies, and adoption studies. Each showed significant genetic influence on the development of various eating disorders, with the familial study showing a 10-fold increase in the risk of developing an eating disorder if a relative has been diagnosed.¹ Scientists expect that as genomic research methods improve and more knowledge is attained, gene interactions and modification will significantly affect eating disorder development.

While genetic research is more difficult for scientists to examine and interpret, the impact of socio-cultural, environmental, and interpersonal influence correlates with the development of disordered eating patterns. This is especially important when considering generational eating disorders or the “passing on” of eating disorders. Studies have demonstrated that children of parents suffering from eating disorders are more likely to develop eating disorders, but it is helpful to examine how this happens. The list below provides a summary of familial behaviors associated with negative body image, altered perception of food, and eating disorder development²:

Parental role modeling of unhealthy eating behaviors 

  • Parents with a vocal fixation on weight-related issues 
  • Using food for nonnutritive purposes, such as rewarding, punishing, or comforting children -parental restriction of children’s food intake 
  • Parental feeding techniques centered around a “zero-waste” mindset 
  • Parental perception of their own children’s disordered eating 
  • Stress-inducing traumatic events or unique life experiences in the home

Each of these behaviors can be broken down and evaluated to determine ways we can stop the perpetuation of disordered eating among generations. Parental techniques are essential in proper child development, as they are the most important influence a child will have during their most vulnerable points of life. According to satiety, children are born with the innate ability to sense satiety and control food consumption. This means that children eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. If parents encourage a “zero-waste” approach to food consumption, they disrupt the child’s innate ability to determine fullness. The same is true when parents promote food as anything other than a nutrition source.

An example of this might be a parent telling their child, “If you behave, we can get McDonald’s afterward.” If parents choose to use the concept of food as a reward or punishment, this can disrupt this innate ability in children to recognize true hunger signals. Parents may tell children when they have “had enough to eat.

Restricting a child’s food intake is rarely beneficial when preserving a healthy relationship with food. This approach causes the child to feel as if food needs to be earned when in reality, food is never earned. The capability to recognize satiety, hunger, and fullness is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship with food. Parents can use proper feeding techniques to maintain a healthy relationship with food.

Parental behavior also majorly impacts child behavioral development. When parents perpetuate their insecurities and fixations on food, body image, and weight-related issues, they teach their children to behave that same way. An example might be if a parent consistently models self-depreciation based on weight or body image. Children will only be led to think the same way about themselves. Exposing children to fad diets, such as “Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, slim-fast, keto, etc.” can be detrimental to the child’s perception of healthy eating behaviors. Perpetuation of a parent’s internal insecurities proves to be a concerning risk factor for developing eating disorders in children. A study completed in 2019 states, “Daughters who engage in eating disordered behaviors may not only lack a maternal role model of healthy eating, but also feel maternal pressure to lose weight and enhance their appearance.²”

Not only is it crucial to model appropriate eating behaviors so that children have a healthy relationship with food, but it is also important to avoid perpetuation of weight-fixation onto the child themselves. Parents should aim to model healthy eating patterns and positive body image and acceptance. Showing children healthy behaviors encourages them to model those same behaviors and reduces the risk of developing eating disorders.

Traumatic life events have also proven to be risk factors for disordered eating. Whether the family or externally-rooted events cause these events, stress and anxiety are linked to the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms often manifest themselves as eating disorders as individuals attempt to maintain control during life’s uncontrollable trials and tribulations. By ensuring that children feel safe and secure during these life events, parents can develop a trust with their children that promotes other healthy coping mechanisms. A huge component of this concept is parental attentiveness. Parents should remain especially attentive to their children during significant life changes to ensure children maintain healthy eating habits.

Parents do not and should not receive full blame for the development of eating disorders. With that being said, there are things parents can do to avoid the development of disordered eating in their children. Raising children is difficult, and we often get too lost in the chaos of life to recognize these behaviors. By the time we are aware of the issue, it is too late. Parents can reduce the risk of developing an eating disorder by avoiding negative behaviors and parenting techniques, maintaining attentiveness, modeling healthy body perception and eating patterns, and providing proper care and support.

At BALANCE eating disorder treatment center™, our compassionate, highly skilled team of clinicians is trained in diagnosing and treating the spectrum of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, compulsive overeating, and other disordered eating and body image issues. In addition to our full-time Day Treatment Program and Weeknight Intensive Outpatient Program, we offer nutrition counseling with a licensed dietitian, meal support, and various other groups and resources to assist those seeking help for food concerns. Click the button below to learn more about our programs and services. 

Our admissions team would be happy to answer any questions you may have about our programs and services. Book a free consultation call with our admissions team below, or read more about our philosophy here.

Looking for eating disorder treatment programs or services in the New York City area? Learn more about our options at BALANCE eating disorder treatment center™ here or contact us here.


This post was written by BALANCE Blog Contributor, Kaitlan Tracy. 

Kaitlan is a current student at Purdue University studying Nutrition and Dietetics. Kaitlan grew up in Wabash, Indiana and spent the majority of her childhood dancing. While dance served as an emotional outlet for Kaitlan, the dance community fostered a toxic environment, enabling the development of multiple eating disorders. Through great effort, Kaitlan is now in recovery and has devoted her academic and professional career to assist others in their journey towards recovery. Kaitlan hopes to become a certified eating disorder registered dietitian and eventually own her own private practice. Kaitlan finds passion in raising awareness to generational trends of disordered eating in childhood development, as well as advocacy for body positivity within the dance community. Kaitlan enjoys spending her free-time dancing and choreographing in Purdue’s Higher Ground Dance Company, as well as running, painting, and working as a barista at a local coffee shop on campus. Kaitlan is grateful to contribute to BALANCE and put her passion for eating disorder advocacy into action.


References

  1. Himmerich, Hubertus et al. “Genetic risk factors for eating disorders: an update and insights into pathophysiology.” Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology vol. 9 2045125318814734. 12 Feb. 2019, doi:10.1177/2045125318814734
  2. Mazzeo, Suzanne E, and Cynthia M Bulik. “Environmental and genetic risk factors for eating disorders: what the clinician needs to know.” Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 18,1 (2009): 67-82. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2008.07.003

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