Young teens who binge eat and those who are fearful of weight gain may be more likely to become overweight later in adolescence, according to a new British study.
Researchers looked for early symptoms of eating disorders among more than 7,000 13-year-olds and found certain symptoms predicted which children would have weight problems at age 15.
Girls who engaged in binge eating at 13 tended to have a higher body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height, two years later.
Both boys and girls who severely restricted their eating at 13 had lower BMIs when they were two years older.
“The most important message is that even at this young age, a high percentage of boys and girls have worrying eating disorders symptoms,” Dr. Nadia Micali said in an e-mail.
Micali led the study from the Institute of Child Health at University College London.
She and her colleagues gathered data from a continuing British trial that includes parents and kids. From surveys filled out by parents, the researchers collected information on eating disorder symptoms among 7,082 teens at age 13 – such as binging, excessive concerns over body weight or shape and behaviours such as restricting food intake.
The team also looked at links between these symptoms and other aspects of the teens’ social, academic, extracurricular and family lives.
Over all, 63 per cent of girls and 39 per cent of boys were afraid of gaining weight or getting fat. Extreme levels of fear of weight gain or concerns about body shape or weight were seen among 11 per cent of girls.
Girls avoided fatty foods more often than boys, while boys were more likely to do intense exercise for weight loss.
Even at age 13, overeating and binging was strongly linked to negative effects on the child’s life and burden to family among both boys and girls, the researchers report in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Binging and overeating were especially linked to emotional and behavioural troubles for both genders. Cutting back on food was linked to mental health disturbances among boys more than girls.
Excessive concern over weight and shape also had a significant effect on girls, Micali points out, “but parents probably don’t recognize the impact of this pattern on a child’s life in boys,” she said.
According to Kathleen Merikangas, chief of the genetic epidemiology branch at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, the results suggest that “lack of regular eating patterns could be a target for intervention and prevention of obesity in youth.”
Merikangas, who was not involved in the research, added that the take-home message remained clear for parents: Eating disorders during the teen years offer a window into the risk of obesity later. Parents need to be aware if their child has a distorted image of their body, she said.
“Pretending not to notice or thinking that eating disorders behaviour will go away” are not good strategies, Micali said.
“Talk to them to understand if their eating disorder behaviours are a reflection of other more deep-seated problems,” Micali said. “Try not to be confrontational but supportive and firm. …
“If they are worried, parents should seek help from a health professional,” she said.