Binge Eating as a Family Affair: Passing on Unhealthy Behaviors with Food

Contributor: Libby Felling, MA, LMFT, The Emily Program

Teenage girl with her DadFood behaviors are influenced by many sources: availability, media, social events, hunger, health goals, emotions, genetics and preferences are just a few. We are confronted by messages and choices regarding food throughout every day in modern life. Some of the earliest messages we receive about food come from our own families.

Our behaviors and attitudes about food and eating can be passed along through the generations – for better, and for worse. When it comes to binge eating, and Binge Eating Disorder (BED), this mental illness can be triggered by unhealthy food behaviors from within the family.

The Most Common Eating Disorder in the US

BED, the newest formal eating disorder diagnosis, is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Binge eating disorder occurs in the U.S. to 3-5% of women (about 5 million) and 2% of men (3 million) (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders). Possible complications of BED can include:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart or gallbladder disease
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnea

Many factors can contribute to the development of this disorder such as genetics, mood disorders, significant trauma, or experiences of weight-related bullying. Sometimes there may also be present a history of unhealthy eating behaviors within a person’s family such as binge eating.

How to Define Binge Eating

Upset woman talking to her therapist on the couchThe term “binge” has commonly come to mean something like “over-consumption;” for example, a person might say they “binge-watched” a TV show. To an eating disorder clinician “to binge” has a more specific meaning:

  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
  • Eating much more rapidly than normal
  • Eating alone out of embarrassment over quantity eaten
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed, ashamed, or guilty after overeating (American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C:
  • American Psychiatric Association.)

The Meaning of Food within Families

Within families food can take on a number of meanings. Food can have a cultural component, such as a wedding cake. The sharing of a meal can be a time of emotional bonding, such as the family dinner.

Food can also take on the significance of reward, such as a special “treat.” Parents and caregivers can implicitly teach children the meaning of food and eating through their own behaviors and attitudes toward food.

Troubles with Communication

relaxed young couple working on laptop computer at homeFor example, a parent who is frequently “on a diet” may communicate that food is to be restricted or strictly limited. A parent who overeats frequently might model this as a way to cope with stressful emotions.

A caregiver who adheres to the belief that some foods are inherently “bad” while others are “good” may pass along a belief that to eat some foods is virtuous while to eat others is forbidden, thus creating a powerful pathway to changes in self-concept.

A child may model some of their caregivers’ behaviors, even to an extreme, and may react with defiance or opposition to others. While these behaviors themselves do not cause BED, they can shape a child’s perception of food.

External Forces for Eating Habits

While factors such as availability may be limited by resources or other external forces, parents and caregivers have a role to play in creating healthful eating habits for their children. Healthful, normal eating is represented by mindful, balanced, intentional choices.

A mindful choice means one that examines without judgment influences and experiences. A balanced choice means one that takes into account many factors; with food this may mean pleasure and preference take precedence sometimes and health considerations other times, but all are considered. An intentional choice means one that is informed by values and goals, and driven by a decision-making process rather than impulse. As described by Ellyn Satter, MS, RDN, MSSW:

“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it–not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.

“Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life” (Ellyn Satter Institute).

Be Aware of Modeling Food Behaviors

Happy  young coupleWhile it’s not necessary or even desirable for a parent or caregiver to scrutinize every interaction with food or eating, it is important to be aware of what is being modeled. If you are a parent or caregiver and the description above gave you pause, it might be worthwhile to make some time to examine your choices and habits and determine whether some could use adjustment.

One of the most important behaviors caregivers can model for children is that even when it’s difficult it’s OK to ask for help. Whatever food and eating behaviors and attitudes were modeled in your family as a child, you can have powerful choices regarding what is modeled for your own children.

We gratefully acknowledge all the loving and supportive families that help eating disorder sufferers find healing and recovery. And we know that families do not cause eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex and developed through a combination of psychological, environmental, and biological factors. Ongoing research is being conducted and greater understanding of eating disorders will further enlighten us over the months and years to come.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What are some other types of foods that have a cultural meaning?


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Ellyn Satter Institute
  4. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated disorders

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.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 28th, 2015
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