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Life Transitions May Trigger Eating Disorders

WEDNESDAY, April 25 (HealthDay News) -- A lack of support following traumatic life events such as relationship problems, the loss of a loved one, abuse and sexual assault can trigger eating disorders, a small new study finds.

People with eating disorders said even changing schools or jobs could trigger eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, according to the University of Minnesota researchers.

The study included 26 women and one man aged 17 to 64 (the median age was 27) who had suffered from eating disorders for an average of 20 years and were receiving treatment from a specialist outpatient clinic.

Nine of the patients had anorexia, three had bulimia, one had both, and the other 14 had eating disorders that did not meet the diagnostic criteria for any one specific condition.

The researchers identified six main factors that triggered eating disorders in these patients. They included:

  • School transition, such as starting junior high school or college. "Nobody knew who I was," one study participant said. "I was incredibly lonely with no support and I just stopped eating."
  • Relationship changes, such as breaking up with a romantic partner or having parents split up. "I was so mad at my dad for choosing her over us.... I think that is when my eating disorder really began," one woman wrote about her father's new girlfriend.
  • Death of a family member or close friend. One woman said her eating disorder began after the death of her sister in childhood. "I started to eat to compensate for feelings of anxiety," she said.
  • Abuse, sexual assault or incest. "I thought if I gained weight that he would leave me alone or I could fight him back," one abuse survivor said.
  • Changing homes or jobs.
  • Illness or hospitalization.

The study appears in the May issue of the Journal of Clinical Nursing.

"The aim of our study was to find out if there was any link between transitional events in family life and the onset of eating disorders," lead author Jerica Berge, an assistant professor in the department of family medicine and community health, said in a journal news release.

"Eating disorders are an important public health issue and knowing what causes them can help us to develop more effective treatment and support," she said.

The study findings confirm that eating disorders can be caused by major life changes and lack of support in dealing with those events.

"We hope that our findings will be of interest to parents as well as health professionals as they underline the need for greater awareness and support at times of change and stress," Berge said.

More information

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

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Nursing, news release, April 24, 2012

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