Study finds “maladaptive eating patterns” prevalent among women. Duh.

From the amazing blog the f-word (food.fat.feminism.) by Rachel on 22december09

It’s estimated that some 10 million females and one million males in the U.S. have an eating disorder.  Shocking numbers, but what about those who don’t meet the clinical requirements for a diagnosis?  A new study by the University of Montreal and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute reveals that those kinds of cases may be more prevalent than you might think.

Investigators completed a phone survey of 1,501 women.  The average age of these urban-dwelling participants was 31, the majority of respondents were non-smokers and university graduates.  Not one participant was classified as having anorexia.  Researchers found that some 13.7 percent of women interviewed reported binge eating one to five days or one to seven times per month; 28 percent of women completed intense exercise twice a month with the sole objective of losing weight or influencing it; and 2.5 percent of women reported forcing themselves to vomit, use laxatives or use diuretics to maintain their weight or shape.    The study also established a link between problematic eating behaviors and self-rated health.  In other words, disordered eating behaviors are more likely to occur in women who perceived themselves to be in poor health (considering the daily barrage fat people are subjected to in which they’re constantly told that they’re one doughnut away from death’s door regardless of actual health, is it surprising, that disordered eating is more prevalent among those who perceive themselves to be unhealthy?).  In all, researchers found that “maladaptive” or disordered eating behaviors and attitudes affected 10 to 15 percent of the women.  The study is published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

“Our results are disquieting,” says Lise Gauvin, a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Social and Preventive Medicine.  “Women are exposed to many contradictory messages. They are encouraged to lose weight yet also encouraged to eat for the simple pleasure of it.”

“We practice a sport for the pleasure it provides, to feel good, but when the activity is done to gain control over one’s weight and figure, it is indicative of someone who could be excessively concerned about their weight,” says Gauvin. “Our data suggests that a proportion of the female population displays maladaptive eating patterns.

This study is actually quite conservative in its estimates, owing perhaps to the relatively small sample size and demographic polled.  A recent online survey of 4,023 women by Self magazine in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that 65 percent of American women ages 25-45 harbor some degree of disordered eating and that another 10 percent suffer from an outright eating disorder.  Even more frightening is that53 percent of the respondents said they were already at a healthy weight and were still trying to lose more!  For a breakdown of those results, read here.

So, what distinguishes disordered eating from the occasional quirky eating?  In a nutshell, it’s the purpose and consistency behind the behavior and whether or not the person maintains a sense of free choice with regard to eating behaviors.  The greater problem now is not only the prevalence of disordered eating; it’s the fact that disordered eating has become normalized and repackaged as healthy eating.  Carbohydrate restriction, obsessive calorie counting, strict food rules, thinking inordinately about food, daily weigh-ins, eating a lot of no- or low-calorie foods, adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet solely for weight loss, juice or water fasting, taking diet supplements to encourage weight loss… how many of these helpful “health” tips have you seen recommended by commercial diet programs, health magazines and even doctors and nutritionists?

It’s important to note that not all who have disordered eating will go on to develop an eating disorder.  While I consider disordered eating to be mostly a cultural phenomenon, eating disorders have been shown to have far more complex origins, including biological and genetic factors.  But considering that most eating disorders begin as a simple diet gone horribly awry, these findings take on an entirely new significance.  After all, it only takes one misstep for those already teetering on the edge of extremity to fall down the rabbit hole.