A new School of Public Health study shows disordered eating behaviors remain a major health issue for teens despite a recent drop in their prevalence—and shaming messages promoting weight loss may potentially be to blame.
Disordered eating is characterized by using methods like chronic dieting, laxatives or self-induced vomiting to control weight.
“I found that between 1999 and 2010, the use of disordered eating behaviors decreased among adolescents of normal weight,” said Katie Loth, post-doctoral researcher and author of the study recently published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. “Unfortunately, trends in the use of disordered eating behaviors over this time period remained the same for adolescents who are overweight.”
Loth gathered her data from an ongoing, long-term school study of adolescent eating habits and weight status known as Project EAT.
The first step in her research was looking at the disordered eating habits reported by 3,000 teens on a Project EAT survey taken in 1999—a period just before public health agencies in America began actively campaigning to reduce both obesity and disordered eating.
She then compared their responses to a later Project EAT survey of a different group of 3,000 adolescents in 2010.
The drop in use of disordered eating behaviors was most pronounced in normal weight girls. Their rate fell from nine percent using disordered eating in 1999 to four percent in 2010.
Loth said the decrease in such behaviors by normal weight teens is promising, but the number of adolescents still using them is alarmingly high and should not be overlooked–especially in the case of overweight teens.
“It’s hard to see that overweight young people are continuing to struggle and it suggests the messages about the dangers of disordered eating are not reaching these young people–something I’ve been worried about,” said Loth.
According to Loth, it’s possible that previous public health and media messages discussing the health consequences of obesity and promoting weight loss have caused some overweight young people to feel bad about their bodies, and consequently, themselves. The result is they are choosing to engage in harmful and ineffective disordered eating behaviors despite the campaigns to deter them.
“We need to continue to attempt to reach all youth with messages about the dangers of disordered eating and do a better job of advocating against public health and media messages that might inadvertently shame individuals for their shape or weight,” said Loth.
To further improve the situation, Loth recommends that public health practitioners continue to make preventing disordered eating a high priority and work to ensure the messages used to combat it address teens in supportive, educational and non-judgmental ways.
“For all youth—and particularly for those who struggle with being overweight—we need to deliver a message of body acceptance,” said Loth. “Further, youth who express an interest in pursuing weight loss should be encouraged to make sustainable healthful lifestyle choices rather than focus on a specific goal of weight loss.”
~ Post by Charlie Plain