The Link Between Parental Dieting and Disordered Eating Behaviours


Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that usually develop during adolescence. There’s no one single cause for eating disorders.

Disordered eating behaviours may result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors, such as early life adversity, exposure to media, bullying, and interpersonal difficulties.

Parenting – and parents’ own relationships with food and their bodies – can have a big impact on how young people feel about themselves and their bodies.

Some parental behaviours can encourage body positivity and positive relationships with food, while others may make the development of disordered eating behaviours more likely.

This blog explores how parental dieting and other behaviours can affect the development of eating disorders, as well as the recovery process.

It also touches on the benefits of parental interventions in the prevention of eating disorders and how creating a positive home environment can protect young people from body dissatisfaction and eating problems.

How Can Parent Behaviours Affect the Development of Eating Disorders?

Parents’ attitudes towards food and eating habits at home can make the development of eating disorders more likely.

Research has found that adolescents with eating disorders reported greater parental influence and less personal responsibility over what they ate than others. Equally, monitoring or restricting a child’s eating may put them at a greater risk of developing symptoms of eating disorders.

The way that parents speak about food and weight can also have a big effect. Young people whose parents engage in weight-related conversations are more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight control behaviours, and engage in binge eating.

Weight-related conversations may cause young people to value themselves on their body shape or weight and see it as an important part of their self-worth. Over-evaluation of shape and weight is a core symptom of eating disorders that often underpins disordered eating behaviours.

On the other hand, some parental behaviours can encourage positive relationships with food and make the development of eating disorders less likely. Research found that young people who participated in family meals were at a lower risk of engaging in disordered eating behaviours.

Boys who had family meals more often were less likely to use unhealthy weight-controlling behaviours while girls were less likely to diet, use unhealthy weight-controlling behaviours, and use extreme weight-controlling behaviours. 

Does Parental Dieting Make the Development of Eating Disorders More Likely?

Young people are always learning. They listen, watch, and process information from the world around them. They learn behaviours, attitudes, and opinions from other people, especially those closest to them.

This means that parents’ behaviours – even when not directed towards their children – can have a big impact on a young person’s thoughts and behaviours. When parents are openly concerned about their own body weight or control their eating, it can encourage young people to think and do the same.

Research shows that young people whose parents diet are more likely to try dieting themselves, even when parents do not encourage their children to do so.

Among adolescent girls, parental dieting is also associated with disordered eating behaviours like skipping meals or fasting. One study found that girls whose mother was currently dieting were three times more likely to diet before the age of 11 than girls whose mother who was not.

How Does It Affect Young People’s Recovery When Parents Diet?

Family can play an important role in a young person’s recovery from any mental health condition. Supportive parenting with clear boundaries, communication, and understanding can help young people cope with challenging times without turning back to harmful thought patterns or behaviours.

Families can provide the scaffolding that allows young people to feel safe and secure in their recovery – and have something to fall back on when things get tough.

Sometimes, though, issues and behaviours within the family can make things more difficult. Parents can act in ways that allow or encourage harmful behaviours to return, or conflict within a family can create stress and anxiety for a young person. That’s why family therapy and parental interventions are often such an important part of adolescent mental health treatment.

When it comes to eating disorders, research shows that parents’ behaviours can play a significant role in a young person’s recovery. Ongoing parental criticism can act as a barrier to recovery and reduce the effectiveness of treatment.

Research published this year shows that parental dieting can affect the recovery of young people with eating disorders, even among those in inpatient treatment programs. Adolescents whose parents were actively dieting gained weight more slowly than others, as did those whose parents exercised more frequently.

The authors suggest that parents who diet may transfer beliefs about the importance of shape and weight or fear of gaining weight to their children – beliefs that may persist throughout the recovery process.

Young people may learn from parents that high-calorie foods are unhealthy, making it harder for them to eat a balanced diet that includes high-calorie, nutritious foods. 

Finally, the authors note that weight stigma from other community members may influence the behaviours of both parents and children. That is, when parents face stigma because of their weight (causing them to diet), children may observe and internalise this stigma.

In turn, internalised stigma may make it harder for young people to recover physically and overcome disordered eating behaviours. This may partly explain the connection between parental dieting and slower recovery.

How Can Parental Interventions Help to Prevent Eating Disorders Among Young People?

Even without direct discussions about weight loss or body shape, parental behaviours – including parental dieting – can make it more likely for young people to develop disordered eating behaviours and make recovery more difficult. This means that parental interventions for adolescents with eating disorders are really important.

Parental interventions can help parents identify and understand behaviours that are harmful to their children’s ideas about themselves, their bodies, and their relationship with food.

But sometimes understanding which behaviours are harmful isn’t enough. These behaviours can be difficult to change, especially if parents themselves share some of the psychopathology of eating disorders.

Effective interventions may work with parents to understand the risks of weight-focused conversations and ‘modelling’ weight-loss behaviours like dieting. Family therapy sessions can help to change harmful modelling into positive examples of eating habits, such as regular family meals.

When parents themselves have disordered eating behaviours, they may require individual behavioural therapy and other types of eating disorder treatment that focus on their own mental health and well-being.

Parental interventions may be offered as part of a young person’s recovery program after they have received a diagnosis of an eating disorder. However, they can also be an important tool for preventing eating disorders from developing in the first place.

Research has found that some prevention studies with parents led to significant improvements in body image and eating problems among young people.

Offering preventative parental interventions more broadly across society may help to address the global crisis of disordered eating behaviours among young people and build positive food cultures inside and outside the home.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Mental Health Support for Adolescents and Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist recovery programs from our residential centre in Malaysia. We take a whole-person approach to mental health support, combining top-tier clinical care with education, community responsibility, and a gap year experience.

We support young people to discover their passions, grow in self-confidence, and develop the skills they need to follow their dreams.

We understand the importance of family in recovery. Through our family therapy modalities and parent interventions, we help families learn how to support their young person while promoting healing throughout the family system.

Everyone who we meet is important to us, whether it’s parents, carers, close friends, or other ‘chosen’ family members.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to make a difference in the lives of young people and their families

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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