Binge eating and purging can occur in boys and girls at a variety of ages, but the risk factors for these behaviors largely vary by age group and gender, according to an article released on June 02, 2008 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are syndromes that involve compulsive eating or compulsive undereating, and they generally are detrimental both mentally and physically for the sufferers. One habit common in these disorders is binge eating, when the patient eats uncontrollably for short bursts of time; another such habit is purging, in which the patient vomits or uses laxatives to limit the digestion of the food and thus control his/her weight. Body image and control issues have been attributed as causes for many documented cases of eating disorders but there has been very little research in teens who are not actively in treatment regarding the early development of these habits.

To help elucidate early causes of behaviors such as binge eating and purging, Alison E. Field, Sc.D., of the Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues analyzed data from the ongoing Growing Up Today study taken between 1996 and 2003. In total 6,916 girls and 5,618 boys, aged 9 to 15 at the start of the study, were questioned regarding various habits and influences. The study examined various risk factors, including frequent dieting, attempts to mimic persons in the media, negative weight comments from fathers or from peers, and any maternal history of an eating disorder. It then correlated these risk factors to the development of frequent binge eating, purging, or both.

In the seven years of follow up, 10.3% of the girls and 3.0% of the boys began binge eating or purging at least once a week. For girls, purging was slightly more common, with 5.3% of the total population, while binge eating was less common with 4.3%. In males, the opposite was true, with 2.1% binge eating and 0.8% purging. A very small proportion of boys and girls engaged in both behaviors.

For girls under 14 years old, a mother with a history of an eating disorder was associated with a tripled risk to begin purging. However, this association was not true when patients were older. “Maternal history of an eating disorder was unrelated to risk of starting to binge eat or purge in older adolescent females,” the authors say. “Frequent dieting and trying to look like persons in the media were independent predictors of binge eating in females of all ages. In males, negative comments about weight by fathers was predictive of starting to binge at least weekly.”

The authors conclude that different risk factors are important for different groups of children. “Our results suggest that prevention of disordered eating and eating disorders may need to be age- and sex-specific. Efforts aimed at females should contain media literacy and other approaches to make young persons less susceptible to the media images they see,” the authors conclude. “In addition, programs for females should focus more on becoming more resilient to teasing from males, whereas programs for males should focus on approaches to becoming more resilient to negative comments about weight by fathers.”

Family, Peer, and Media Predictors of Becoming Eating Disordered
Alison E. Field; Kristin M. Javaras; Parul Aneja; Nicole Kitos; Carlos A. Camargo Jr; C. Barr Taylor; Nan M. Laird
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(6):574-579.
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Written by Anna Sophia McKenney