Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Three Out of Four American Women Have Disordered Eating

A new survey by Self magazine in partnership with the University of North Carolina shows that sixty-five percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 report having disordered eating behaviors and an additional ten percent reported symptoms consistent with full-blown eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. The disordered eating behavior in this study cut across racial and ethnic lines and was not limited to a particular age group either.

So basically what this means is that the majority of women in this country are experiencing serious distress related to food and weight. This distress is so normalized and validated that most women probably don't even recognize it as disordered. Women turn to makeover books and TV shows instead of support groups. Girlfriends talk to girlfriends about their latest extreme diets, but it doesn't occur to them that they could (and should) talk to therapists about how often they feel genuinely depressed about their weight. When we feel bad about ourselves, we think weight loss is the solution. But more often than not, our weight loss attempts only make us feel worse--physically and emotionally.
  • 75 percent of women report disordered eating behaviors or symptoms consistent with eating disorders; so three out of four have an unhealthy relationship with food or their bodies
  • 67 percent of women (excluding those with actual eating disorders) are trying to lose weight
  • 53 percent of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight
  • 39 percent of women say concerns about what they eat or weigh interfere with their happiness
  • 37 percent regularly skip meals to try to lose weight
  • 27 percent would be “extremely upset” if they gained just five pounds
  • 26 percent cut out entire food groups
  • 16 percent have dieted on 1,000 calories a day or fewer
  • 13 percent smoke to lose weight
  • 12 percent often eat when they’re not hungry; 49 percent sometimes do
[Science Daily] [Self]


tori_927 said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but from my understanding of the study, it was only done on Self readers. That makes a HUGE difference, especially since many Self readers are already conscious of their appearance and physical health (which is why they read the magazine!). That's the problem with magazines doing studies like that - the whole country can't be summed up by a survey of their demographic.

KC Elaine said...

I agree with tori - I also urge you to be careful when using words like "depressed" - clinical depression is a pretty serious thing.

KC Elaine said...

I also think it's important to emphasize the difference between dieting and eating disorders. This line is often blurred, but I believe they are very different.

Magali & Claire said...

Tori and KC,
Thanks for these comments. Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D. is the lead researcher on this study. She is a well-respected eating disorders scholar, and she will be presenting this research at the Academy for Eating Disorders Conference in a few weeks. We're confident that the findings aren't just fluff, but we will certainly make an effort to get answers to your valid questions about the representative sample.

We did not intend to minimize the seriousness of clinical depression here. However, we do believe that many women who suffer from depression are also caught up in cycles of disordered eating--including unhealthy dieting. Full-blown eating disorders are different from diets, absolutely. But there are also gray areas that we need to keep exploring. Extreme dieting, calorie restriction, elimination of major food groups, exercise addiction, etc. have all become such accepted parts of our culture, and we're disturbed that most people are unable to recognize those behaviors as disordered.

What do you think of the concept/term "disordered eating"?

Magali & Claire said...

Hi Tori and KC,
Just wanted to follow up with info from Cynthia Bulik. She says that the 4,000+ women surveyed were NOT Self readers. The online survey was conducted by an independent company, and at no point in the survey were Self or the University of North Carolina mentioned.

Also, The Today Show is airing a piece about the study tomorrow a.m. We would love to hear what you think of it if you can catch it. We'll try to post a clip here, too.

KC Elaine said...

I do like the term disordered eating and I appreciate your using. thanks for the clarifications and great blog here, btw

allison k. said...

I do believe that "disordered eating" is rampant in our culture, but it unfortunately becomes a loaded term because of its similarity to "eating disorder."

When most people who have never suffered from an eating disorder or who aren't educated about those who do hear those words, I feel like they immediately jump to the most shocking images they've seen in the media (e.g. the billboard ad from last fall and all the media coverage surrounding its subject). As Magali and Claire have pointed out, her suffering had manifested itself on the outside, becoming an inaccurate symbol of what it looks like to have an eating disorder.

So, when many people hear the term "disordered eating", their brains call up those shocking images and they think, "Oh, that'll never be me."

Although I've never suffered from an eating disorder, I've worked very hard to overcome what I believe was not the best relationship with food and exercise. I can't quite define what "disordered eating" means to me, but I do know my definition of healthy.

Healthy for me means that food and exercise are a means to a much more important end: I run year round so I can keep up with my friends on the slopes in the winter and in the ocean in the summer, and I now know how my energy and creativity can be positively influenced by eating healthy.

I worry for those who can't see beyond the calories and the treadmill -- who can't see the ol' forest for the trees.