Family environment influences eating disorder risk

February 11, 2003 in Nutrition for Children and Teenagers, Nutrition Topics in the News, Weight Management

Family environment influences eating disorder risk

New research shows that girls may be more likely to develop eating disorders if they usually eat alone or if their parents are not married.

The risk of an eating disorder also increased among girls who spent a lot of time reading magazines targeted to young girls or listening to the radio. Mass media may have its influence on a young girl's life by affecting her sense of what is beautiful and how her body compares to others.

Changes in the family environment like divorce or the death of a parent can add stress to a teen's life, they add, a situation that may encourage her to adopt unhealthy eating habits.

Additionally, mothers and fathers can influence a teen's eating habits, and having only one parent at most meals may limit how well parents can encourage healthy eating, the authors note.

Based on these findings, a young girl's parents and people who care about her should always stay in communication with her, "increasing her self esteem." "And she should not be left eating alone," the Spanish researchers say. "Eating with others represents a potential restraint of eating disorder behaviors."

During the study, the research team surveyed 2,862 girls between the ages of 12 and 21. Eighteen months later, the researchers re-examined the girls who were initially free of an eating disorder and noted who had since developed an unhealthy eating pattern and whether they had any characteristics in common.

During the study period, 90 girls developed a new case of an eating disorder. Most of these new cases were girls who showed some symptoms of an eating disorder, but not enough to be clinically identified as having anorexia or bulimia.

Whether these so-called "partial" eating disorders will all lead to full-fledged eating disorders is not known. One could be the first step toward the other, but there is no specific evidence on this.

The researchers found that young girls who said they usually ate alone were almost three times as likely as others to develop a partial or full-fledged eating disorder during the study period.

Girls whose parents were no longer married--whether divorced, separated or widowed--were twice as likely to have developed an eating disorder within the previous 18 months, as were girls who reported frequently reading girls' magazines or listening to the radio.

Although the girls included in the study all lived in Spain, the researcher said he suspected that the same risks for eating disorders are present in other developed countries.

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.