A father's relationship with his daughter may influence whether or not she will develop an eating disorder, researchers from Australia have found.
Girls whose fathers exerted tight control over them were more likely to develop anorexia nervosa, while low levels of paternal care increased the risk of both anorexia and bulimia nervosa, but to a lesser degree, Dr Tracey D. Wade of Flinders University in Adelaide and colleagues found.
On the other hand, high parental expectations, usually thought of as a risk factor for anorexia, actually weren't related to the eating disorder in the researchers' analysis. However, they found, such expectations did predispose girls to developing bulimia.
These findings are reported in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
How the study was conducted
Family criticisms of a child's appearance, weight and eating behaviour have been tied to eating disorders. To better understand the role of such criticism and other facets of parenting in the development of eating disorders, Wade and her team looked at 622 identical twins, including 226 pairs and 170 individuals.
In one analysis, they compared early life experiences of individual twins with depression, anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa to those of twins who were free of psychological disorders. In the second, they looked at twin pairs in which one had an eating disorder or major depression but the other didn't.
Comments from family members about how much a girl ate or her appearance were linked to a greater likelihood of both anorexia and bulimia, the researchers found. Both depressed women and those with bulimia reported higher parental expectations than their mentally healthy peers, although the relationship with bulimia was stronger. Conflict with parents and criticism by parents were related to both eating disorders and depression.
Twins with anorexia were more likely to report having overprotective, controlling fathers. Receiving little care from the father was less strongly linked to both anorexia and bulimia. The researchers found no separate influence of maternal behaviour on the risk of eating disorder or depression.
Fathers play unique role
"Fathers may play a unique role in the development of eating disordered behaviour in their daughters compared to other psychopathologies," the researchers conclude.
The findings could be used to help target the "vulnerabilities and core beliefs" involved in therapy for eating disorders, Wade and her team say.
"For example, when working with people with anorexia nervosa, it may be of relevance to tackle issues related to feeling controlled by powerful others, whereas when working with people with bulimia nervosa, it may be useful to examine coping with the perceived expectations of others," they suggest.
SOURCE: International Journal of Eating Disorders, December 2007. – (Reuters Health)