Adopted families and Eating Disorder Recovery

Happy father and his adopted daughter outdoors

Contributor: Courtney Howard, B.A., Executive Assistant at Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope

Regardless of whether a child is adopted, any family is going to have a unique way of coping with an eating disorder diagnosis and recovery journey. However, individuals who have been adopted or in foster care might be at higher risk for the development of an eating disorder than others. Identifying these risk factors can lead to early detection and intervention.

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can develop as a result of biological, psychological, and social factors. An individual can be genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder, but environmental factors often trigger related disordered thoughts and behaviors. Children who have been adopted might not know much about their family history of mental illness, so it is important to take any initial signs and symptoms of mental health disorders seriously.

The connection between adoption and eating disorders

There is a definite relationship between adoption and the development of eating disorders that indicates children who have been adopted are at high risk. A scholarly article from George Fox University reports that individuals who have been adopted are more likely than other children and teens to struggle with substance abuse, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns [1].

Loving mother and adopted daughter sharing computer in outdoorsThough this is certainly not applicable to all adoption cases, some children who are adopted have a history of personal trauma, including food insecurity. This means that food was scarce, whether due to socioeconomic conditions or cases in which food was used as a manipulation tool.

After adoption, children who have survived starvation might begin binge eating or hoarding food now that it is readily available. This obsession with food, regardless of whether the individual has a history of food insecurity, constitutes a disordered relationship with food.

Children who binge on, hoard, or steal food should not be shamed or punished for doing so. In the past, when food was scarce, these might be the behaviors that kept them alive. However, you can now help these children develop intuitive eating patterns and support them through eating disorder recovery.

The importance of resolving food issues

If an adopted child has a history of trauma or abuse, it might seem that addressing these concerns is a priority over disordered eating. However, it is important that families understand these issues are very intertwined. Addressing past trauma without including treatment for co-occurring conditions, such as eating disorders and substance abuse, can be largely ineffective.

Katja Rowell, M.D., is a childhood feeding specialist and expert on the issue of adoptive families and eating disorders. As she explains in Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parents’ Guide to Ending the Worry About Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More, “Helping a child have a healthy relationship with food and his or her body is at the core of health and happiness.” A child or adolescent with a disordered relationship with food and distorted body image must address these issues to go on to lead a truly full life.

What can I do to help?

mother and adopted daughter resting on a bench in the parkAnyone who has an eating disorder or highly disordered eating habits is encouraged to seek professional help immediately. This is because early intervention can greatly improve the effectiveness of treatment and increase an individual’s chances at long-term recovery. However, even if these behaviors have been present for years or decades, full recovery is possible.

Dr. Rowell suggests that older children who are adopted and engage in food boarding or bingeing are allowed to work through this to learn their own hunger and fullness cues. Putting these individuals on strict diets or meal plans might do more harm than good, as it can reinforce the idea that food is unavailable or a luxury. This can also give children the feeling that they are “bad” and being punished through food restriction, furthering their disordered relationship with food.

Instead, psychotherapy and possibly medication management to address co-occurring anxiety or depression can help an individual learn to feel safe and trust his or her body. This is the foundation of intuitive eating.

Families can do a lot to support their loved ones in recovery. In fact, you play an important role that a professional cannot fill. You can give these children unconditional love and support in the home, which is invaluable to someone struggling with an eating disorder.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Do you agree that there is a connection between adoption and the development of eating disorders? How can we best increase awareness of this reality without attaching stigma?

Courtney Howard Image - 2-17-16About the Author: Courtney Howard is the Executive Assistant for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.


[1]: Snodgrass, G. (1998). Statistics on the Effects of Adoption. George Fox University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 28, 2016
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