Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the report is believed to be the first of its kind outside the United States.
Researchers used data on 7,082 participants from the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol, on adolescents at age 13 and then at age 15. The study showed that 63.2% of girls and nearly 40% of boys were afraid of gaining weight or getting fat, and that 11.5% of girls compared with 4.7% of boys were ‘extremely afraid or terrified’ of gaining weight.
The study also found that 34% of girls and 21% of boys were upset or distressed about their weight and shape, and that 26% of girls and 14.5% of boys had restricted their food intake (by fasting, skipping meals or throwing away food) in the previous three months.
Other key findings included:
- 53% of girls and 41% of boys avoided fatty foods
- 27% of girls and 23% of boys had exercised to lose weight in the previous three months
- Using laxatives and making oneself sick for weight loss was rare at this age in both girls and boys (0.23% and 0.16% respectively)
- Girls and boys who were worried about their weight and shape and engaged in unhealthy weight-control strategies had 40% increased odds of being overweight and 90% higher odds of being obese at age 15
- Bingeing (excessive overeating with a feeling of losing control over what one is eating) affected girls (4.6%) and boys (5%) fairly equally and those who did binge had 50% increased odds of being overweight and had twofold increased odds of being obese at the age of 15
The findings indicate that even in very early adolescence, eating disorder behaviours are not unusual, particularly in girls, and are reported by parents. They also show that these eating problems have an impact on the child’s mental health, and their social, personal and family life.
The researchers found that the patterns of eating-disorder behaviours seen among young teenagers in the population, although not amounting to full eating disorders, had negative consequences on young people’s social, psychological and physical health. This has important implications for increasing efforts to identify young people who have the behaviours shown in the study. The authors state that public health efforts for early identification and prevention of eating disorders are crucial.
Co-author, Bianca DeStavola, Professor of Biostatistics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Our study has found that behaviours typical of an eating disorder are more common in early adolescence than we previously thought – not just in girls but also in boys.
“These behaviours are associated with a range of social and psychological problems. Importantly, we found a connection with certain behaviours and higher weight two years later, which has important public health implications for the prevention of obesity.”
The authors add that there is still much work to do to be able to identify boys and girls who have unhealthy weight control behaviours and binge-eating early, but this is vital to prevent full-blown eating disorders and other negative social and emotional problems.
The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
- Nadia Micali, George Ploubidis, Bianca De Stavola, Emily Simonoff, Janet Treasure. Frequency and Patterns of Eating Disorder Symptoms in Early Adolescence the Journal of Adolescent Health. DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.10.200
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