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Disordered Eating Is Widespread Among U.S. Women

75% say they behave abnormally around food, survey finds

FRIDAY, April 25 (HealthDay News) Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of young American women report disordered eating behaviors, and 10 percent report symptoms of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, a new survey finds.

The findings -- from an online poll of more than 4,000 women between the ages of 25 and 45 -- found that 75 percent eat, think and behave abnormally around food. The survey was conducted by SELF magazine in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Our survey found that these behaviors cut across racial and ethnic lines and are not limited to any one group. Women who identified their ethnic backgrounds as Hispanic or Latina, white, black or African American and Asian were all represented among the women who reported unhealthy eating behaviors," Cynthia R. Bulik, a professor of eating disorders and director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program, said in a prepared statement.

"What we found most surprising was the unexpectedly high number of women who engage in unhealthy purging activities. More than 31 percent of women in the survey reported that in an attempt to lose weight, they had induced vomiting or had taken laxatives, diuretics or diet pills at some point in their lives. Among these women, more than 50 percent engaged in purging activities at least a few times a week, and many did so every day," Bulik said.

Eating habits that some women think are normal -- such as skipping meals, avoiding carbohydrates and, in some cases, extreme dieting -- may actually be signs of disordered eating, which is often linked with emotional and physical distress.

While there's a widespread belief that eating disorders affect mostly young women, the survey found that women in the 30s and 40s had about the same rates of disordered eating as younger women.

Among the other findings:

  • 67 percent of the women (excluding those with actual eating disorders) are trying to lose weight.
  • 53 percent of dieters are already at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight.
  • 39 percent of the women said concerns about what they eat or weigh interfere with their happiness.
  • 37 percent of respondents said they regularly skip meals to try to lose weight.
  • 27 percent said they'd be "extremely upset" if they gained just five pounds.
  • 26 percent have eliminated entire food groups from their diet.
  • 16 percent have dieted on 1,000 or fewer calories a day.
  • 13 percent smoke to lose weight.
  • 12 percent often eat when they're not hungry, and 49 percent sometimes do.

The survey was expected to be published in the May issue of SELF and to be presented May 17 at the Academy for Eating Disorders' International Conference on Eating Disorders, in Seattle.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about eating disorders.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, news release, April 22, 2008

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