Understanding Who Suffers From Eating DisordersS

A new study of adolescent eating disorders in the U.S. finds that they are far more prevalent than previously believed, and that the gender gap between male and female adolescents was far smaller than previously found. The study has the largest sample size of any previous study of its kind, and is the first population-based study to include the full adolescent age range — over 10,000 teens aged 13 to 18.

The majority of adolescents in the study who had eating disorders were treated by mental health facilities for emotional or behavioral problems, though not necessarily for their eating disorder.

According to the study, which was kindly sent over to us in full,

"The sex ratio for most eating spectrum disorders in this study was generally smaller than that in prior treatment-seeking samples, and considerably smaller than the 9:1 ratio stated in the DSM-IV. The lack of a female preponderance of eating disorders could be attributable to either the methods of the present study or a true lack of a sex difference in eating disorders in adolescence. One indication that the difference may be genuine is provided by the large female to male ratio for [sub-threshold anorexia nervosa]."

We're all heard the unfortunate term "manorexia" and how the female-focused imagery of eating disorders may inhibit male eating disorder sufferers from seeking care; here's some definitive, unfortunate proof that this spectrum doesn't solely affect women.

There was also cultural variance: Hispanic adolescents, for example, had the highest rates of bulimia, although the study's authors caution that they have not broken down the data for "immigration status, country of birth, and length of residence in the United States," which may have an impact. Also, "there was a trend toward ethnic minorities reporting more binge eating disorder, while non-Hispanic white adolescents tended to report more anorexia nervosa."

The study doesn't discuss religion, but another study released this week, which looked at about 500 students age 12-20 in Ceuta, a religiously diverse city that is in North Africa but part of Spain.

The incidence of eating disorders was found to be 2.3-fold higher among Muslim adolescents than among their Christian classmates. Similarly, body dissatisfaction was 1.8-fold higher in the former group. Finally, as a general conclusion, an average of one in four adolescents suffers some type of eating disorder, and 15% suffers body dissatisfaction.

We're noted before that the vast majority of psych research is based on a very narrow sample — "an American college student is 4,000 times more likely than a non-American to be the subject of a psych study." The American study's authors note that comparison has previously been difficult to make between gender, race, and ethnicity because study methodology and samples have varied so widely. We may not know yet what accounts for it, but it's a step in the right direction.

Prevalence And Correlates Of Eating Disorders In Adolescents [Archives Of General Psychiatry]
Eating Disorders and Body Dissatisfaction Is Double in Muslim Teenagers Than in Christian, Spanish Study Finds [Science Daily]
Over Half A Million US Teens Have Eating Disorder, But Few Have Sought Treatment [NYDN]

Earlier: Another Reason To Take Psych Research With Many Grains Of Salt