Six in ten 13-year-old girls, compared to four in 10 boys the same age, are afraid of gaining weight or getting fat according to new research on eating disorders from the UCL Institute of Child Health (UK) in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (UK).
Using data on over 7,000 participants in the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol (UK) from when they were aged 13 and 15, the study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), showed that girls were more than twice as likely as boys to be 'extremely worried' of gaining weight or getting fat (11.5% v 4.7%).
It also found that:
- One in three girls (34%) and one in five boys (21%) were upset or distressed about weight and shape
- One in two girls (53%) and four in 10 boys (41%) avoided fatty foods
- A quarter of girls (26%) and one in seven boys (14.5%) had restricted their food intake (by fasting, skipping meals or throwing away food) in the previous three months
- Just over a quarter of girls (27%) and just under a quarter of boys (23%) 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 (0.23%) and boys (0.16%)
- 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 research indicates that even in very early adolescence, eating disorder behaviours are not unusual, particularly in girls, and are reported by parents. It also shows that the eating problems have an impact on the child's mental health, and their social, personal and family life.
In what is believed to be the first report of its kind outside the USA, the researchers found that the patterns of eating-disorder behaviours seen amongst 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 at identifying young people who have the behaviours shown in the study.
Speaking about the findings, the main author, Dr Nadia Micali, an NIHR clinician scientist, said:
'We have found that behaviours typical of an eating disorder are more common in early adolescence than previously thought, and not just in girls but also in boys, and that they are associated with a range of social and psychological problems in the child.
'Most 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.
'We are far from being able to identify boys and girls who have unhealthy weight control behaviours and binge-eating early, but this is crucial to prevent full-blown eating disorders and other negative social and emotional problems.'
Notes to editors
1. The paper, Micali, N et al, Frequency and Patterns of Eating Disorder Symptoms in Early Adolescence, is published online today, Tuesday 17 December 2013, in the Journal of Adolescent Health http://www.
2. Dr Nadia Micali is available for interview. Please contact Dara O'Hare, communications manager at Children of the 90s, on +44(0)117 331 0077, +44(0)7891 549144 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Case studies are available from b-eat, the UK's national charity for people affected by eating disorders. Contact them on +44(0)300 123 7061 and download their media guidelines on reporting eating disorders here http://www.
4. It is estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 adolescents in the UK have eating disorders; this costs the health service an estimated £48-60m per year.
5. An awareness video about eating disorders in teenage boys produced by Dr Nadia Micali, the author of this research, is available on YouTube: http://www.
6. Based at the University of Bristol, Children of the 90s, also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), is a long-term health-research project that enrolled more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. It has been following the health and development of the parents and their children in detail ever since and is currently recruiting the children and the siblings of the original children into the study. It receives core funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol. Find out more at http://www.
7. The UCL Institute of Child Health, in partnership with Great Ormond Street Hospital, is the largest centre in Europe devoted to clinical and basic research and postgraduate teaching in children's health.
8. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government's strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website.
9. Beat is the UK's leading nationwide charity supporting people affected by eating disorders and campaigning on their behalf. Over 1.6 million men and women of all ages and backgrounds in the UK are affected by eating disorders. Beat aims to change the way people think about eating disorders, challenge the stigma that people with eating disorders face and campaign for better services and treatments. Beat provides helplines for adults and young people, a UK-wide network of self help and support groups and online support including information, message boards and live chat. Beat provides expert knowledge, education and training to health and social care professionals and support and encourage research into eating disorders. Beat's vision is simple: eating disorders will be beaten.