Research Examines Influences on Disordered Eating
> 4/18/2008 12:21:38 PM

Disordered eating can be triggered by many factors, and research appearing this month's issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders focuses on how past and current situations can contribute to an eating disorder. While one study connects social pressure to disordered eating, another looks at how past trauma can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food years later.

A team of researchers from Syracuse University surveyed 209 college freshman, aged 18 through 19, about past traumas they may have experienced. The survey encompassed a wide range of situations, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, and in addition to reporting their past traumas, the participants also rated how badly the experience had affected them. Students who had faced a trauma in childhood were more likely than their peers to display signs of disordered eating, and the researchers identified connections between certain types of trauma and the different symptoms of eating disorders. Those who had experienced violent trauma were more likely to skip meals, fast, binge eat, and abuse diet pills or laxatives, while laxative abuse, binge eating, and vomiting were connected to divorce and the death of a loved one.

The students were surveyed at the beginning and end of one semester, and while those who had experienced trauma in childhood were more likely than their peers to display disordered eating at the start of the semester, they were also more likely to have gained more unhealthy eating habits by the semester's end. Eating disorders can be triggered by stress, and they often emerge in high school or as an individual enters college. The transition from high school to college may confer an even greater risk to those with a history of trauma, contributing to unhealthy eating habits.

Other aspects of a person's current situation can also have a great affect on their mental health, as a study from the VA Iowa City Health Care System illustrates. In previous studies of social influences on eating behaviors, researchers have shown that disordered eating may be "contagious" and spread among individuals. This effect seems to occur among girls especially, possibly as a result of peer pressure or because they often diet together and discuss ways of losing weight. To further examine this idea, the researchers analyzed nationally-representative data from over 15,000 high school students, looking at information from pairs of students. When compared to pairs in which both students lived in different counties, pairs in which both students lived in the same county were four to ten times more likely to diet, severely restrict their food intake, use diet pills, or engage in other unhealthy behaviors associated with eating disorders. Similar clusters of behavior were observed in rural, urban, and suburban counties, and only purging behaviors appeared not to spread among peers. The researchers theorize that purging is viewed as more secretive and less acceptable than other eating behaviors. As a result, it is less likely to pass from one individual to another.

Eating disorders can have detrimental effects upon the lives of teens and young adults and are fatal in many instances, and understanding the risk factors is crucial to identifying those in need of help. Providing programs in high school and college that inform students of the signs of disordered eating may be beneficial, and discussing the treatment options available might also encourage many to seek help for the problems they experience. High school and college can present numerous challenges for students, especially those already struggling with trauma or mental illness, but with support and treatment, they can improve their health and their lives.

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