Family Systems Variables as Predictors of Eating Styles and Body Mass Index
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Obesity is a heterogeneous condition that can seriously impact the degree to which one is healthy and socially accepted. It is generally considered to be greatly influenced by genetic factors. Given that we cannot change our genes, it was the purpose of this study to try to further understand the variables related to obesity that are not genetic. Specifically, the purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of certain family systems variables and childhood feeding practices on Body Mass Index (BMI). The family variables of interest were intergenerational intimacy, intergenerational differentiation, intergenerational triangulation, spousal intimacy, spousal differentiation, nuclear family triangulation, and the relationship between eating and sex. The childhood feeding variables of interest related to the use of food as a reward, coercive use of food, parental disagreement about feeding, the expression of love through food, and feeding enmeshment (i.e., the perception of parental overcontrol in feeding). Because certain eating styles have been found to be related to obesity, further investigation revolved around the impact of the family and feeding variables on eating styles. The eating styles of interest were restrained eating, emotional eating, external eating, and binge eating. The variables were studied by surveying employees of a school system in southwest Virginia.
Body Mass Index was found to be significantly positively correlated with feeding enmeshment, weight as a means of sexual avoidance, and eating in response to a lack of physical affection. Restrained eating was not found to be significantly related to any family or childhood feeding variable. Emotional eating, external eating, and binge eating were all significantly negatively correlated with intergenerational intimacy, spousal differentiation, and nuclear family triangulation health, significantly positively correlated with sexual avoidance and deprivation of affection. In addition, emotional eating and binge eating were significantly negatively correlated with intergenerational differenti-ation, while external eating and binge eating were significantly negatively correlated with spousal intimacy. Emotional eating was positively correlated with all of the childhood feeding practices, while external eating and binge eating were correlated with four and three, respectively, of the feeding practices. While there were many significant correlational findings, there were few significant coefficients in the hierarchical regression analyses, presumably because of the high intercorrelations between the predictor variables (the family and feeding variables).
In general, it can be said that family functioning and childhood feeding behaviors are relevant to overeating and overweight. The family and feeding variables are better predictors of eating styles that can lead to obesity than of obesity per se. High levels of dysfunction in families and frequent use of food in non-nutritional ways are associated with high levels of emotional, external, and binge eating. These findings may have implications for physicians and therapists.
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