Mothers with history of eating disorders sought for study

Researchers are recruiting mothers who have had eating disorders for a study testing a new method that may help the mothers form good eating patterns in their young children.

- By Erin Digitale

Women who have previously had an eating disorder often struggle to teach their children healthy eating habits, research has shown.

Now, scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine are testing a new method that may help these mothers form good eating patterns in their young children. The researchers are recruiting families with a child between the ages of 1 and 5 whose mother has had anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder in the past. In the 16-week study, the researchers will work with both the mother and her partner to build healthy family interactions around food.

“The data on feeding practices of mothers who have had eating disorders are very worrying,” said Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, PhD, a visiting scholar at Stanford who is leading the new study. “These mothers are good parents who want only the best for their children, but they struggle with eating-disorder thinking. It’s something that comes and blurs their parenting.”

Prior research has shown that mealtime conflict is more common in families in which the mother has had an eating disorder. These mothers may overfeed or underfeed their children, though underfeeding is more predominant. They also have more difficulty recognizing hunger and fullness cues in themselves and their children, which makes it harder for them to help their kids learn to respond to these sensations. Children whose mothers have had eating disorders are more likely than other kids to be dissatisfied with their bodies and engage in emotional eating, binge eating or restrictive eating.

In the new study, the Stanford researchers will meet with families 12 times during the 16-week period. The project aims to improve communication about food and healthy eating between women who have had eating disorders and their nonaffected partners so that both parents can play a positive role in teaching their young children to eat. The researchers will help each family identify specific, individualized ways that the mother’s eating-disorder history might affect them and develop techniques to counteract possible problems.

“For one mom, this might mean adding another slice of bread at dinner. For another, it might mean practicing her ability to not say anything to her child about her fears that the child might become overweight,” Sadeh-Sharvit said. The researchers hypothesize that the study will help parents avoid pressuring children to eat too little or too much, that children will take more responsibility for regulating their own hunger and fullness, and that parents will communicate better about eating patterns.

The study’s principal investigator is James Lock, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a clinician who treats eating disorders at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

Families who are interested in participating in the research can contact Sadeh-Sharvit at (650) 497-4949 or for more information.

Information about all of Stanford’s eating-disorder studies that are seeking participants is available online at

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2024 ISSUE 1

Psychiatry’s new frontiers