Why do some girls and women decide to starve themselves? The typical culprits are thought to include low self-esteem and a society that too highly values scarily thin models.
But new research from Drexel University indicates that in many cases, the choice is an over-reaction to putting on extra pounds earlier in life.
Drexel psychologist Michael Lowe has found that girls who go on to become anorexic weigh about 11 pounds more than their classmates in elementary school. Similarly, bulimics are on average 15 to 20 pounds heavier than their peers as teens.
“Rather than calling these problems eating disorders, they perhaps should start being thought of and being called weight and eating disorders,” said Lowe, who also is a consultant for the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders in Philadelphia. “The weight issue doesn’t just follow the development of the eating disorder. It also tends to precede the development and probably has a lot to do with why certain people become susceptible to this problem.”
Given today’s epidemic of obesity, Lowe’s findings suggest many more women might suffer from an eating disorder than in the past. He even suspects bulimia, which was not recognized until the 1980s, is a product of the mounting struggle of most Americans to control their weight.
“While most people have responded to our environment by consuming too many calories and burning too few, those few girls or women who become bulimic are responding to it by counteracting their weight gain through radical dieting, which is their entree into an eating disorder,” said Lowe, who is currently recruiting women with eating disorders for two additional studies.
The CDC estimates that more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.
The results also underscore the Catch-22 of preventing eating disorders: Should observers draw attention to the weight gain or not? There is a fine line between gentle encouragement to shed a few pounds and the stigma that might lead a young woman to take drastic and unhealthy measures.
Rather than focusing on weight, Lowe said, parents should emphasize healthy eating and exercise as early as possible.