Mothers, Daughters & Eating Disorders

There is no single cause of an eating disorder. Rather, a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to the development and maintenance of these mental health conditions.

Still, the intersection of genetics and upbringing is a powerful one, and often at the center of this intersection is a mother daughter relationship.

Daughters of mothers with eating disorders may find themselves facing many of the same disordered eating behaviors as their moms, whether influenced through biological inheritance, role modeled behavior, or both.

But help is possible to combat the negative forces of both nature and nurture, allowing both mothers and daughters impacted by eating disorders to find proper treatment, and a healthier outlook on life.

Mothers With Eating Disorders: Genetic Factors

Eating disorders were once thought to be primarily social diseases, with the behavior explained as a result of body dissatisfaction that stemmed from unrealistic societal beauty standards and the undue pressure to live up to them.

And while those social influences can play a part in the development of these conditions, newer research has uncovered an increasing number of genetic links to conditions like binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia nervosa (BN), and anorexia nervosa (AN).

In early studies, researchers found a 7- to 12-fold increase in the prevalence of AN and BN in the families of people diagnosed with these conditions. [1] The research was enough to declare these conditions at least moderately heritable, or able to be passed down genetically.

Further looks into the pattern have partially explained why, uncovering a number of heritable traits—including stress tolerance and reactivity, negative emotionality, and harm avoidance—that may make someone more vulnerable to using maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as disordered eating behaviors. [1] Some eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, have also been tied to autism spectrum disorder, which is also known to run in families. [2, 3]

Maternal Eating Disorders: Perpetuating Behavior?

While nature represents a large part of the traits people eventually develop, it’s only one part of the equation. The environment someone is brought up in can have equally powerful effects on their thoughts and behaviors.

Environmental factors work on the psyche twofold: They can imprint certain ideas and ideals on someone, forming or altering their sense of normalcy; and they can “trigger” certain genes someone was born with, potentially leading to the development of disordered thoughts or behaviors.

Modeling Unhealthy Eating

The demands of raising a child or children are numerous and unending. Everyone makes mistakes, and no one can model only the best habits around their kids all the time.

That said, regular patterns or occurrences someone experiences growing up can make an impact on their future habits and outlooks. This is also true of the eating habits children observe in their mothers.

Mothers’ dieting behaviors may influence their daughters’ relationship with food, whether intentionally or not. This includes regularly dieting or limiting food intake, fixating over nutritional information, binging on snacks, or other types of unhelpful behaviors.

Engaging in Unhealthy Self-Talk

It’s not just the way mothers act that may impact their daughters’ eating habits. The way they speak about and to themselves can leave just as much of an impression on their children.

In one study, girls who heard their mothers engage in negative self-talk about their bodies and appearance were found to have higher rates of body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and generally more concerning attitudes toward food and eating, including eating markedly less sweet food than girls who did not hear negative self-talk from their mothers. [4]

Commenting on Shape & Size

Aside from focusing on their own weight, shape, and appearance, mothers making comments on their daughters’ weight, shape, and appearance was also found to influence their child’s thoughts and attitudes about food and body image.

The difference could be stark, according to some research. About 4.2% of girls who did not regularly hear comments from their parents about their appearance were found to use extreme weight control measures later in life. For girls with parents who regularly made comments, that number was closer to 23.2%. [5]

The research also found a correlation between more frequent comments on a child’s weight and appearance and higher rates of depressive tendencies and a lower sense of self-worth in the child. [5]

Weight-Based Teasing

Bullying has long been connected to lower rates of self-esteem and higher vulnerability for developing disordered eating behaviors and thoughts, with one study finding as many as 65% of people with eating disorders citing bullying as the cause, or at least as a contributing factor. [6]

This type of bullying also sometimes happens at home. Some mothers may make jokes or offhand comments, not realizing their damaging potential, while others may more outrightly criticize or tease their daughter about her weight or appearance. In either case, the behavior can have a negative impact.

Trauma and Financial Hardship

Financial hardship is generally not the fault of a parent, nor does it represent behaviors they can control or limit their children’s exposure to. Still, it’s possible for these factors to influence a child’s eventual eating preferences.

One study connected poor diet in daughters, at least partially, to their socioeconomic status, with those coming from homes with less resources generally engaging in less nutritional diets. [7]

Exposure to trauma or traumatic events also has a deep connection to many eating disorders, with some research finding these experiences to be nearly universal in people who struggle with disordered eating behaviors. [8] An upbringing that includes these experiences may be more likely to lead to the development of an eating disorder.

How to Raise a Healthy Daughter (Even if You Have an Eating Disorder)

There are many factors that go into the development of an eating disorder. Mothers alone are not responsible for these conditions arising in their children. Even if a maternal eating disorder is present, there can be any number of factors that further influence a child’s eventual thoughts and behaviors about food, eating, and body image.

But, there is generally a connection between a mother’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, and those of her daughter. And this connection can also be used for good, with mothers helping to positively influence their children.

Some strategies for passing on healthier habits and mindsets include:

  • Discussing healthy eating. Explain why you’ve chosen the foods you’re planning to eat. Focus on nutritional benefits, not how they’ll impact your waistline.
  • Accepting your body. Embrace how your body looks and feels, and use positive terms when discussing your strength and appearance. Refrain from using body weight as a metric of beauty or happiness.
  • Keeping lines of communication open. Encourage your daughter to talk with you about how she feels about her weight and her body. Don’t interrupt when she’s sharing something important to her.
  • Finding things to praise. Generally, this works best when these comments are directed at things other than appearance. Instead, look to your daughter’s kindness, creativity, or intelligence as attributes worth praising.

These strategies are also mutually beneficial. Taking an extra moment to think positively, indulge in self-love, or openly communicate concerns can not only help set a good example for daughters, but help mothers also take a kinder look at themselves, and understand the power of these positive habits.

How to Help a Daughter With an Eating Disorder

If you, your daughter, or both, are struggling with disordered eating behaviors, it’s imperative to find help. These mental health disorders are serious, and could be potentially deadly if left untreated.

Many options exist for helping you and your daughter, both together and separately. Family-based treatment is a proven method for incorporating both parents and children in the important aspects of eating disorder recovery, and a number of individual therapy programs can also help bolster self-esteem and discourage unhelpful thoughts and habits.

If you’re unsure where to look for help, your primary care physician, your child’s pediatrician, or a trusted therapist can be a great source of information. These medical professionals are often versed in eating disorders, and may be able to help point you in the direction of a useful program or plan out your next best steps.

If you’d rather not breach this subject face-to-face, there are a number of eating disorder hotlines which offer information and resources on an anonymous basis.

Regardless, finding help is perhaps the most important step of all, for both you and your daughter. Together, it’s possible to overcome these harmful thoughts and behaviors, and get on a path toward a healthier and happier future.


  1. Berrettini W. (2004). The genetics of eating disordersPsychiatry; 1(3):18–25.
  2. Boltri M, & Sapuppo W. (2021). Anorexia Nervosa and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic ReviewPsychiatry Research; 306:114271.
  3. Autism spectrum disorder. (2022). Medline Plus. Accessed April 2023.
  4. Handford CM, Rapee RM, & Fardouly J. (2018). The influence of maternal modeling on body image concerns and eating disturbances in preadolescent girlsBehaviour Research and Therapy; 100:17–23.
  5. Bauer KW, Bucchianeri MM, & Neumark-Sztainer D. (2013). Mother-reported parental weight talk and adolescent girls’ emotional health, weight control attempts, and disordered eating behaviorsJournal of Eating Disorders; 1:45.
  6. Bullying and Eating DisordersNational Association of Eating Disorders. Accessed April 2023.
  7. Martínez-Vargas L, Vermandere H, Bautista-Arredondo S, & Colchero MA. (2022). The role of social determinants on unhealthy eating habits in an urban area in Mexico: A qualitative study in low-income mothers with a young child at homeAppetite; 169:105852.
  8. Convertino AD, Morland LA, & Blashill AJ. (2022). Trauma exposure and eating disorders: Results from a United States nationally representative sampleThe International Journal of Eating Disorders; 55(8):1079–1089.