Parental state of mind in relation to eating

If the mother’s choice of food quality and quantity is so important for the baby’s health from pregnancy to adult life, why are parents adopting unhealthy nutritional habits?

As is documented by multiple studies, emotional and psychological states lead people to modify and/or intensify their nutritional habits, and we now call this mechanism emotional eating. Several studies have confirmed the connection between anxiety and depression and compulsive eating rather than complete withdrawal from food, but until recently, little attention has been paid to the specific phase of pregnancy. Generally, scientists think that gestation functions as a trigger in the cases of women who show a history of eating disorders: they usually show improvement during pregnancy, but they revert to the same problems after giving birth. According to some, this improvement is due to the fact that pregnant women know that they are taking care of another being and they adopt a more caregiving behaviour. These data cannot be generalized and extended to the far more numerous subclinical population, which shows problems in this area without getting the clinician’s attention. One example appears in the studies conducted by Wildes et al. (2008), where physical and emotional neglect in infants results in inadequate eating habits. In addition to this dysfunctional pattern, a series of related risks emerged, such as symptoms of depression, low self-esteem and substance abuse. These symptoms formed a non-specific condition in relation to the onset of psychopathology, regarding which the Authors note that interventions conducted at an early age produced significantly different and more favourable outcomes in adulthood for those individuals who accessed some form of intervention. The coexistence of comorbid symptoms that is found in cases of neglect and often poorly treated, seems to appear more frequently in cases of ill-treatment and abuse, affecting multiple systems in a cross functional way: affective, behavioural, somatic, dissociative, and relational (Zucker, Spinazzola, Blaustein, & van der Kolk 2006). The study by Ringer and Crittenden (2007) highlighted how a third of their sample subjects, who mainly suffered from food disorders, reported unresolved traumatic events in early childhood, and seemed to point to a direct connection between the mental states of their mothers and their condition. In particular, it was clear that a trauma or an abuse that did not find a resolution in the parental function led to the formation of a symptom that was the direct expression of the inability to distinguish between emotional and physical needs, a competence that directly derives from the caregiver’s inability to recognize and respond to the child’s signals.

Notably, the mother’s state of mind was characterized by a distancing attitude towards the attachment bond, which revealed itself in the tendency not to talk about the trauma or the abuse, as a strategy to protect the child from the impact of the event. In other words, the disguise of reality gave the illusion that the suffering created by those experiences could simply disappear; however, this approach caused instead the creation of a psychopathological nucleus that in the eating disorder symptoms found direct expression of the difficulties experienced by the child both individually and in the dyadic relationship.

The question at the beginning of this section seems to find some answers. A first hypothesis is that a certain attitude toward food is the answer to early childhood problems that never found a path toward resolution.

This explanation allows us to read these dynamics according to two different perspectives: (a) on the one hand, we can assume that eating problems are means of communication used by the child to signal an individual discomfort, and this, in time, will characterize his or her adult eating habits; (b) on the other hand, we can assume that food is the element through which traumas and/or mourning are transmitted from one generation to the next, allowing the passing on of the negative effects, from mother to child, and transforming food disorders into relational dysfunctions that permeate the individual’s lifespan.

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