Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

Need Another Reason Not to Diet?

Think your dieting and body dissatisfaction isn't affecting your kids? Think again. In this case, actions really do speak louder than words.... Read More

So teaching my kids to watch

So teaching my kids to watch their calories, exercise and pay attention to fat gains is bad eh? Its not like I'm worried about my kids calories at their stage in life, but they know we do as adults. Do any of the bloggers here actually advocate healthy weights and lifestyles? I'd much rather my children see our constant effort to stay healthy and fit as an example. My wife had that, I did not, and that meant I had to develop it in my late 30's. I'm kicking myself for not realizing it earlier. I think many of you only see the messed up ones and extrapolate that to, too wide a population. In a rapidly growing obese society, the answer isn't to say its ok to be fat, but show people how easy it is, if they want to, to not be.

This article is full of the

This article is full of the usual "blame the mother" midset that is both inaccurate and unhelpful. How do we know, for example, that Dylan's mother wasn't told by a pediatrician that Dylan was oveweight and that he should consult with a nutritionist. In that case, it's hard to blame the mother, even if the advice she was receiving from the doctor was ill-informed. Sadly, there is a long history of mother-blaming among psychotherapists, and this article perpetuates that saga.

Two other points. First, there is no scientifically reliable evidence that parents' eating behaviors play a role in causing a child to develop a clinicial eating disorder.

Second, we should be very cautious accepting the opinions of eating disorder professionals without citations to rigorous scientific studies. This is, in part, because a majority (about 70%) of eating disorder professionals themselves have a personal history of one or more severe psychiatric disorders. See Warren, A qualitative analysis of job burnout in eating disorder treatment providers, How do we know, therefore, that when an eating disorder professional expresses her opinion, the opinion is not the product of a mentally ill mind?

The best available research

The best available research shows that children and teens actually do not tend to mimic the eating behavior of their parents. There are many studies showing this. For example, if there is more than one child in the family, the brothers and sisters will typically develop a very wide range of eating behaviors, and generally not those of the parents. The only exception is if the children are identical twins. In that case, they have a tendency to develop similar eating patterns. This is because eating is governed primarily by biological factors. Identical twins have similar biology due to having the same genes. The research is consistent with the reports of parents. In fact, I don't know any parents who think that their children mimic the parents' eating behaviors.

Nevertheless, the author of this post on PsychologyToday claims that parents directly control a child or teen's eating attitudes and behaviors. Could she kindly cite the scientific research that she claims supports this theory?

Thanks for your questions!

Thank you for your question. Here is the research I discussed in my blog post:

1. Alderson TSJ, Ogden J: What do mothers feed their children and why?, Health Education Research 1999, 14:717-727
2. Holub SC, Tan CC, Patel SL: Factors associated with mothers' obesity stigma and young children's weight stereotypes, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 2011, 32:118-126
3. Jacobi C, Agras WS, Hammer L: Predicting children's reported eating disturbances at 8 years of age, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 2001, 40:364-372
4. Fisher JO, Sinton MM, Birch LL: Early parental influence and risk for the emergence of disordered eating. Edited by Smolak L, Thompson JK. Washington, DC US, American Psychological Association, 2009, p. pp. 17-33
5. Benedikt R, Wertheim EH, Love A: Eating attitudes and weight-loss attempts in female adolescents and their mothers, Journal of Youth and Adolescence 1998, 27:43-57
6. Birch LL, Fisher JO: Mothers' child-feeding practices influence daughters' eating and weight, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000, 71:1054-1061
7. Fisher JO, Birch LL: Restricting access to foods and children's eating, Appetite 1999, 32:405-419
8. Cameron JD, Goldfield GS, Cyr M-J, Doucet É: The effects of prolonged caloric restriction leading to weight-loss on food hedonics and reinforcement, Physiology & Behavior 2008, 94:474-480

Please share your sources with me and I will be happy to integrate them into my research.

Dear Ms. Pritchard, Those 8

Dear Ms. Pritchard,
Those 8 studies don't support your hypothesis that a mother's dieting will cause a daughter to diet. Alderson and Jacobi did not examine the daughter's eating behaviors. Holub studied stigma, not the eating behavior of either mother or daughter. Fisher was a book chapter, not the report of a scientific study. The Benedikt study was inconclusive. Birch found that the mother's restrictive eating practices did not cause the daughter to diet; the opposite was found (the daughter ate more snack food.) Fisher found that mothers who diet tend to restrict their daughters' access to "snack food" not overall consumption of food. Cameron discussed the effects of caloric restriction on the reinforcing value of palatable snack food, not the effect of mother's dieting on children.
Most experts now agree that there is no known, consistent, causal relationship between a mother's diet and dieting behavior by her daughter. For a good general review of the literature and a study finding no causal relationship, see Snoek, Longitudinal Relationships Between Fathers', Mothers', and Adolescents' Restrained Eating, Appetite 52 (2009), 461-468 (free full text available online) Snoek points out that after numerous studies, "the evidence for aggregation of dieting behaviors within families is not convincing." (p 462) Among the studies cited are Davison (2000), Ogden & Elder (1998), Fulkerson (2002), Byely ((2000), Field (2001) and many others.

Thank you!

Although all the studies I mentioned were correlational in nature (it is very difficult to do a causal study in my field) and only suggested a relationship between mother's dieting and daughter's eating behaviors, I will definitely look into the study you mentioned.

Thank you!

Dear Ms. Pritchard, The

Dear Ms. Pritchard,
The studies you cited do not find a consistent correlation between dieting behavior by parents and dieting behavior by their children. It is now pretty well established that whether or not children diet is dependent on factors other than whether the parents diet.
Here's another paper supporting this conclusion: Loth, Predictors of Dieting and Disordered Eating Behaviors from adolescence to Young adulthood, J Adolesc Health 2014 Jun 9
This was a study of 4,746 individuals. Parental weight concerns had no measurable effect on whether adolescents adopted dieting behavior.
Can't we just say that "dieting" isn't healthy? Why do we need to tell people that dieting will also damage their children, when there isn't the evidence to make that connection? Do you think the anti-dieting message loses credibility when these kinds of unsubstantiated claims are made about the effect on children?

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Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.


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