A new tool has been identified that my help doctors and families predict which preteens are at a high risk for an eating disorder.
A new study suggests that preteen food choices may help physicians predict the risk of girls developing eating disorders. The study was one of the first of its kind to focus on the eating habits of girls as they transition from childhood through the teenage years and into adulthood.
Researchers Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center analyzed food diaries kept by nearly 900 girls for a decade. The girls were ages 9 and 10 when the study began. The purpose of the study was to determine if the girls’ food choices would predict the appearance of eating disorder symptoms in adolescence. These symptoms include a preoccupation with thinness, dissatisfaction with one’s body image and unhealthy eating habits. In addition to keeping food diaries, the girls in the study were interviewed annually by dieticians and filled out a questionnaire that was designed to detect the onset of eating disorder symptoms.
Researchers compared the percentage of proteins, carbohydrates and fats that the girls ate to the later appearance of eating disorder symptoms. One of their findings was a correlation between the percentage of fats and carbohydrates that a girl eats at age 11 with the onset of body dissatisfaction by age 14. They also found a relationship between the consumption of mostly carbohydrates and little fat at age 15 and the development of erratic eating habits by age 19.
The study revealed a pattern among some girls that began with a desire to be thin between ages 9 and 12 that developed into body dissatisfaction by age 14, with erratic eating habits appearing between ages 18 and 19.
A related study which used the same data found that skipping lunch often meant that a girl would consume more calories throughout the day than girls who ate lunch. While many studies have targeted the impact of skipping breakfast, this was one of the first to study the effects of skipping lunch.
Perfectionism was found to be a personality factor that was a predictor of eating disorders. According to Abbigail Tissot, lead author of the study, girls who are strongly committed to high ideals of appearance are more at risk for developing eating disorders and, ironically, for being overweight and even obese later in life. Tissot theorizes that this is because the adoption of erratic eating habits during their teens causes them to lose the ability to follow their body’s natural hunger cues.
Results of the study were presented at the International Conference on Eating Disorders. The findings are considered preliminary until they undergo peer-review and are published in a medical journal. Researchers who were involved in the study expressed hope that their findings can help health care providers identify at-risk girls at a younger age and improve treatment outcomes for eating disorders.