06:38pm Sunday 26 January 2020

Social Pressures Fuelling Obesity

Jackie, who is originally from Darkley in County Armagh and now lives in Belfast was awarded her PhD in Psychology at the University of Ulster Winter Graduations ceremonies at Ulster’s Coleraine campus this week.

Her PhD thesis explored the impact that shame, pressure for thinness and concern with physical appearance have on disordered eating and the psychological well-being of people in Northern Ireland and Britain.

One aim of the research was to test the hypotheses that social/media pressure on appearance negatively influences disordered eating attitudes within a general population. It was found that these pressures did significantly contribute to levels of disordered eating in both male and females, with higher levels of reported pressure associated with higher levels of disordered eating attitudes.

Jackie says that one particularly interesting and worrying finding was that a higher percentage of males reported high levels of social physique anxiety – i.e. anxiety related to anticipated appraisal of their physique – compared to previous research.

She continues: “It seems that in today’s society, the pressure for a perfect body is increasingly affecting men as well as women, and many then engage in disordered eating habits in order to achieve this ideal. Shame was also found to have a highly significant affect on disordered eating in both men and women.”

Jackie says the findings could provide useful information to policy makers in designing targeted educational and therapeutic interventions to prevent the development of disordered eating. Research has shown that early interventions produce better outcomes than later intervention.
“While there are already a number of health awareness programmes being delivered in schools, the focus is generally on healthy eating and exercise. More work needs to be done to address the shame, poor self esteem, pressures on appearance, and negative body image associated with eating disorders,” she says, adding that the studies also highlight the need for an Eating Disorder unit in Northern Ireland.
“Each health board area in Northern Ireland has a dedicated specialist out-patient eating disorder team, but currently the sicker patients are sent to England for in-patient treatment. This is not ideal as it means the patient is away from their social support network.
“Evidence suggests that social support seems to have a positive effect on the well being of individuals and a protective effect over the risk of developing mental health problems. However such an effect is conditional on the presence of a positive social network, which includes not only family and friends but also caring neighbours.  Encouragingly, there are plans to open an in-patient unit in the future and there are some eating disorder charities based in Northern Ireland who provide invaluable support, advice, and counselling.
An additional study within the thesis reported the experiences of males who suffer from eating problems, through analysis of online chat room discussions – one of the first studies to conduct such an analysis. It found that young men use online message boards for support, both due to the stigma attached to their illness and because they could remain anonymous. They were very secretive of their illness and suffer from similar issues that females with eating problems do.
“Encouragingly, these males received support and help, many stated that they would try to admit their problem to a medical professional or loved one following discussion.”
Jackie adds: “Males with eating problems are a minority group. However they are suffering to the same extent as females with eating problems are, and this needs to be taken into account by health professionals when planning prevention and treatment programmes.
“Overall, the thesis aimed to give an insight into a small selection of factors that may contribute to, and maintain disordered eating, however, it is important to remember that there are many underlying and predisposing factors that can lead to the development of an eating disorder. The factors highlighted should be considered in prevention and treatment programmes as they have been proven to contribute to disordered eating attitudes.”

For further information, please contact:

Press Office, Department of Communication and Development
Tel: 028 9036 6178
Email: pressoffice@ulster.ac.uk

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