Will My Daughter Inherit My Eating Disorder?

If you struggle with an eating disorder as a parent, you might be concerned that your disordered eating patterns may be passed on to your child. Studies have shown that eating disorders have both genetic and environmental risk factors. The good news is that if you’re reading this, you are probably open to exploring ways to help your child avoid developing disordered eating—or improving their relationship with food, if they already have a less healthy relationship with food.

Eating disorders such as anorexia, binge eating disorder (BED) and bulimia often center around a self critical view of one’s own body (in some cases referred to as body dysmorphia). In response to this, the person may enter into a dysfunctional relationship with food and nourishment, often in the form of a binge–restrict cycle, where the person may deprive themselves of food with the goal of altering their appearance, and then later eat more than what their body needs in response to that restriction. Common co-occurring conditions are obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and major depression.

It is possible to heal from an eating disorder. Shame and secrecy have kept people from discussing their eating disorders in the past. But times are changing. Discussing mental health is becoming more commonplace, and body positivity and body neutrality are relaxing the rigid expectations around physical appearance—especially for women. When you are able to talk about an issue, that is an important first step on the road to recovery. Improving your relationship with your body image and eating habits will positively impact your child’s body image and eating habits.

Let’s look at some risk factors for eating disorders and what you can do to help your child avoid an eating disorder, or heal from it.

Model a healthy body image, and your child will notice

Body image is often influenced both by attitudes in the immediate family as well as by peer groups and societal norms. It’s an environmental factor, which means you as a parent can affect how your child is influenced.

Be aware that your attitude toward your own body is important. Even if you aren’t vocal about being self critical, your child probably knows how you feel about yourself. The journey to heal disordered eating is more likely to be successful when family members learn what they can do to help. If you’re in a family where multiple generations have an eating disorder, take steps to heal yourself. Modeling growth in the direction of self acceptance will be hugely helpful to help your child. It shows them how to heal themselves.

Tips:

  • Never comment on a child’s size, even if you think you are being constructive.
  • Remind your child that their body is special and unique. No two bodies are the same.
  • Acknowledge that people have different heights, eye colors, and weights, to normalize body differences.
  • Do not criticize your own body—or anyone else’s—in front of children.

Cultivate a healthier relationship with food

Attitudes toward food are another environmental factor where you can create a positive influence. Diet culture has saturated our media to such an extent that often we don’t realize when we’re saying things that reinforce unhealthy eating patterns.

Focus on affirmative statements in regards to food, such as what healthy nutrients a meal has, or mindful noticing of how the food looks or smells. De-emphasize or eliminate discussion of what you don’t want from food (like too many calories or regretful complaining about feeling too full after).

Reframe eating as a joyful experience filled with gratitude and curiosity, as opposed to something that brings shame or regret.

Tips:

  • Use neutral language for “guilty pleasure” food. A slice of cake is just a slice of cake.
  • Serve food on a plate or bowl. It’s good to engage in the ritual of food preparation, even if all you’re doing is “plating” it.
  • Say something positive about the food you’re about to eat. This invites in sensory appreciation and may spark conversation. “This salad has so many beautiful colors, with the tomato, peach, spinach, and potato!” “The soup smells amazing. What spices did you use?”
  • Eat meals with no screens.
  • Breathe and take your time while you eat. Humans are pack animals, and we subconsciously emulate those around us. If Mom or Dad eats quickly, the child will too. If Mom or Dad slows down and takes deep breaths while they eat, savoring their food, that will slow down the pace of eating for everyone, increasing enjoyment and optimizing digestion.

Genetic factors

A person born into a family where someone has anorexia are 10 times more likely to develop the condition, compared to others. Fifty-three genes have been associated with anorexia. But research into genetic predisposition for eating disorders still has some major gaps. And environmental factors can also influence epigenetic changes that have been shown to initiate or maintain anorexic behaviors.

So while there may be genetic risk factors, it’s important to focus on the factors you do have control over while avoiding genetic determinism—which can make a person feel a loss of agency.

Conclusion

If you are a parent with an eating disorder, it’s important to start on your own journey of healing. The risk factor for your child developing an eating disorder is higher, and you owe it to your child—and yourself—to seek help.

There are also many things you can do to change the family culture toward one that is more curious, grateful, and allowing when it comes to body image and nourishment.

Having a professional to help you on this journey is important. Reach out to a therapist or dietitian who is trained to help people recover from eating disorders. These clinicians understand the emotional component of eating disorders, and they use a non-diet approach that focuses on cultivating a healthy relationship with food. One that is based on nourishment rather than deprivation.

 


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