A new study representing a cross national stratum, and the largest study of its kind studying eating disorders in the United States, found that teens 13 to 18 years of age suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts, anxiety disorders and substance abuse depending on the type of eating disorder they have.

Teens were asked if they had ever had an eating disorder and if they had had one within the past 12 months. Included were anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. In total, about 0.3% of the teens surveyed reported suffering from anorexia nervosa, and 0.9% from bulimia nervosa. A full 1.6% suffered from binge eating disorder. Ethnic minorities were more likely to report binge eating disorder, and white teens tended more toward anorexia.

One third of those with bulimia actually attempted suicide. About 15% of those with binge eating had and about 8% of those with anorexia had attempted the same.

Most with an eating disorder also had some other mental health problem, with 55% to 88% of those with an eating disorder also reporting such problems as anxiety, depression, or a behavioral disorder.

Kathleen Merikangas, PhD, senior investigator at the intramural research program at the National Institute of Mental Health said:

”Eating disorders are a serious public health problem; it seems to me there has not been much research attention on the topic.”

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and an obsessive fear of gaining weight. It is often coupled with a distorted self image, which may be maintained by various cognitive biases that alter how the affected individual evaluates and thinks about her or his body, food and eating. Persons with anorexia nervosa continue to feel hunger, but deny themselves all but very small quantities of food. The average caloric intake of a person with anorexia nervosa is 600-800 calories per day, but there are extreme cases of complete self-starvation. It is a serious mental illness with a high incidence of comorbidity and the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by restraining of food intake for a period of time followed by an over intake or binging period that results in feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. The median age of onset is 18. Sufferers attempt to overcome these feelings in a number of ways. The most common form is defensive vomiting, sometimes called purging; fasting, the use of laxatives, enemas, diuretics, and over exercising are also common.

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States affecting 3.5% of females and 2% of males and is prevalent in up to 30% of those seeking weight loss treatments. Binge eating is different from normal appetite increases or overeating from time to time. People with a binge eating problem consume unusually large amounts of food on a regular basis. They often eat quickly, do other things while eating (like watch TV or do homework), and don’t stop eating when they’re full. People who binge eat are usually overweight because they habitually consume more calories than their bodies can use. As a result, they may feel bad about themselves and about their bodies.

The researchers cautioned that, among other limitations, the small numbers of teens with an eating disorder found in this survey means that analyses of possible associations may have been under reported.

Nonetheless, they concluded that the study “provides key information concerning the epidemiology of eating disorders” among U.S. teens and shows that they “represent a major public health concern.”

Source: The American Journal of Psychiatry

Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.