June 18, 2018

Disordered eating behaviors more common in overweight and obese young adults


One fifth of overweight or obese young adults engage in disordered eating behaviors, but most have never been diagnosed with any eating disorder. This finding, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and reported in US News and World Report, comes as a result of analysis done by researchers at the University of California San Francisco and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, using Add Health data.

Disordered eating behaviors measured during the Wave III interview (respondents aged 18-26) include binge eating, vomiting, fasting or skipping meals, or using laxatives or diuretics to lose weight. Of respondents who were overweight or obese at Wave III, over one fifth said they had engaged in disordered eating behaviors; however, less than 2% of these respondents had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. What’s more, respondents who reported these behaviors at Wave III were more likely to have diabetes and have gained weight at Wave IV, underscoring the need for these behaviors to not go unchecked.

In contrast, those who were normal or underweight were twice as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. According to Dr. Jason Nagata – the study’s first author – in a University news release:

…[T]his may reflect under-recognition that these conditions exist in heavier young adults …”Clinicians and parents should be aware that eating disorders occur in people who are overweight and obese. They should ask if and how young people are trying to lose weight and discourage unsafe practices, which can lead to severe illness and hospitalization.”

This finding is another in a trend of Add Health data demonstrating that many diseases and health conditions go undiagnosed. Previously, findings published in the journal Biodemography and Social Biology showed that few people with hypertension actually know that they have it.

Read the original abstract here: Nagata, J. M., Garber, A. K., Tabler, J., Murray, S. B., & Bibbins-Domingo, K. (March 14-17, 2018). Disordered eating behaviors among overweight/obese young adults and future cardiometabolic risk in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Journal of Adolescent Health, 62(2), S17-S18. Paper presented at the Global Adolescent Health Equity, Seattle, WA.