Fathers, in addition to mothers, now sought for Stanford eating-disorder study

Stanford researchers are expanding a study of how parents with previous eating disorders can form good eating patterns in their young children. They now are seeking dads and single parents.

- By Erin Digitale

Stanford researchers are studying strategies to help parents who have had an eating disorder instill good eating patterns in their children. 

Mothers who have previously had an eating disorder often struggle to teach their children healthy eating habits, research has shown. Now, a Stanford University School of Medicine study of how to help them is being expanded to include fathers, making it the first study in the world to offer this type of targeted intervention for dads.

“We have really sparse information on fathers with eating disorders,” said Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, PhD, a visiting scholar at Stanford who is helping to lead the new study. “Although eating disorders are very stigmatized in women, there is even more stigma in men. And men may not understand the potential impact of their eating disorder on their children, since feeding is, in many families, still perceived as an issue that mothers worry more about.”

In 2014, Sharvit and her collaborators began testing a method aimed at helping mothers with a history of eating disorders nurture good eating habits in their young children. The researchers began their study in women who were living with their partners and small children. The eligibility criteria for the study have been extended, and the researchers are now recruiting families with a child between the ages of 1 and 5 whose mother or father has had anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder in the past. The study had previously included only two-parent families; single-parent families are now also being asked to join. For the 16-week study period, the researchers will work with the parent to build healthy family interactions around food.

Unhealthy control

Prior research has shown that parents with a history of disordered eating may try to exercise an unhealthy degree of control over their children’s food intake. For instance, parents who fear their children becoming overweight may prevent their kids from eating high-fat or high-carbohydrate foods that are needed for healthy development. Or, the parents may closely monitor how much a child eats and tell him or her when to stop eating.

Men may not understand the potential impact of their eating disorder on their children,

Such well-intentioned efforts can backfire, Sharvit said. “There is a lot of evidence that the more you control or restrict a child’s eating, the more likely they are to eat more when the parent is not around and become overweight.”

In the newly expanded study, the Stanford researchers will meet with families 12 times during the 16-week period. Parents will learn about the “Division of Responsibility” model of feeding, in which parents are in charge of the timing and content of a meal, and children decide whether to eat and how much. The researchers will also help each family identify specific, individualized ways that the parent’s eating-disorder history might affect them and develop techniques to counteract possible problems.

“We want to help educate parents and also help them work through their anxieties that if they open the gate, the child will have no limit,” Sharvit said. “We want to help parents feel that they can manage their own concerns and allow their child to regulate his or her own hunger and satiety.”

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 shiris@stanford.edu for more information.

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

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.