What Can We Learn from the Patterns of Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders can take many forms. There is evidence to show that people with one form may transition to another over time. How and why this happens has not been closely examined, until now.

Cari Pearson Carter, Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota Medical School decided to analyze those patterns. She led a recent study entitled, Stability and change in patterns of eating disorder symptoms from adolescence to young adulthood, which is part of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health’s Project EAT (Eating and Activity among Teens) research. The study is also published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

“For the first time, we identified disordered eating groups and looked at the different transitions individuals made between the groups. We wanted to find out what fueled those transitions over a 10-year period from adolescence to adulthood,” Pearson Carter said. “The better we are able to understand what factors increase the possibility of developing disordered eating behaviors, the better chance we have to develop effective prevention efforts.”

Three groups emerged during the study:

  • Asymptomatic group (those with no symptoms)
  • Dieting group (those who were trying to lose weight)
  • Disordered eating group (those who engaged in binge eating and purging)

The results found that most individuals (about 60%) in the asymptomatic group in adolescence stayed in that group and did not develop disordered eating behaviors 10 years later. “So if an adolescent isn’t engaging in any disordered eating behaviors or dieting in adolescence, their chances of not developing those behaviors in adulthood is pretty good. That is an encouraging thing to see,” Pearson Carter said.

On the other hand, most individuals (75%) in the disordered eating group in adolescence continued to belong to a symptomatic group (dieting or disordered eating groups) 10 years later. “What this is really telling us is that disordered eating behaviors are difficult to stop once they begin,” Pearson Carter said.

The study also found that self-esteem played an important role in determining which group adolescents landed in. Those with higher self-esteem in adolescence tended to have a decreased chance of transitioning from the asymptomatic group to the disordered eating group in adulthood. Higher depression, family weight teasing and substance use, increased the chances of moving to a more severe group or decreased the chances of transitioning to a less severe group by adulthood.

“I think the major takeaway is that early detection and intervention for disordered eating symptoms is critical, especially in young girls. Talking to them about behavioral and emotional concerns early on and how to effectively manage those could help keep them from forming disordered eating habits that are really difficult to break,” Pearson Carter said.

Pearson Carter hopes this study will inform parents and health professionals to provide more effective treatment options for those struggling with eating disorders and also prevent adolescents from developing disordered eating habits in the future.