Are eating disorders contagious?

With France’s call for a “ban on thinness,” there’s much debate about what does and doesn’t promote the desire to

With France’s call for a “ban on thinness,” there’s much debate about what does and doesn’t promote the desire to be overly thin. Two recent studies done in the U.S. and reported in this month’s issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders are shedding light on at least some of the underlying causes of why young women develop eating disorders.

A study in high school students found that eating disorders may be contagious. The researchers said their findings confirm the strong social influences on female adolescents in the U.S. to be thin, sometimes using unhealthy behaviours to achieve this goal.

The study revealed that binging, fasting, diet pill use and other eating disorder symptoms clustered within specific counties, particularly among female students. But no clustering was seen for purging, possibly due to its secretive, less socially acceptable nature. And clustering patterns were found to be the same in rural, suburban and urban counties.

The researchers suggest that peer pressure, information sharing or students modelling their behaviour on one another are possible mechanisms. Based on these results, they think it may be more effective to target eating disorder prevention efforts to schools where they are more common, rather than individual students.

In the second study, college students who went through traumatic experiences as children were found to be at greater risk of developing an eating disorder. These researchers found that students with a history of trauma—ranging from the divorce of their parents, to the death of a loved one, to physical or sexual abuse—were more likely to have symptoms of an eating disorder.

Students who said they’d suffered a “violent trauma” in the past were more likely than their peers to skip meals, fast, binge-eat or abuse diet pills or laxatives. Previous studies have found that victims of childhood sexual abuse are at increased risk of bulimia and, to a lesser extent, anorexia.

While these studies were done on students, adult women also grapple with the long-term effects of eating disorders, or with concern over whether their daughters are in danger of developing anorexia or bulimia. Have you personally dealt with an eating disorder? Or with a friend or family member who you have tried to influence away from unhealthy eating habits? (Reuters)