Former Graduate Student Led Study That Uncovers Eating Disorders in Young Men

Posted 12/07/07
Eating disorders are most often identified with young, white females, but a new study provides data showing that males and other ethnicities are not immune to developing eating disorders.

After examining ten years of data, a group of Wesleyan researchers led by a recent graduate student has found that male adolescents are at increased risk of developing eating disorder symptoms. The researchers also found that black female adolescents are the least likely to practice weight control behaviors.

The new study was published in the December 2007 issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders, the official journal of the Academy of Eating Disorders. Freeman Scholar and psychology graduate student Y. May Chao ’06, MA ’07, a native of Taiwan, led the study and conducted the research while she was a student at Wesleyan.

“Often eating disorder studies do not include males,” Chao says. “Close to no [eating disorder] studies include ethnic minority males. Adolescence is the age of onset for eating disorders. Other research has found that treatment during adolescence is more effective than treatment during adulthood.”

The study used data gathered from more than 60,000 subjects between 1995 and 2005.

The study’s other researchers included Ruth Striegel-Moore, professor and chair of psychology; Lisa Dierker, associate professor of psychology; Faith-Anne Dohm, associate professor of psychology and special education at Fairfield University; Francine Rosselli, former psychology visiting scholar at Wesleyan; Emily M. Pisetsky ’07; and Alexis May ’05. The study is unique and an important accomplishment in the field of eating disorder research because of the large sample size and inclusion of males and ethnic minorities.

The data for the study came from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) survey, which has been conducted every two years since 1991 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess the prevalence of health-risk behaviors among teens. The YRBSS data came from nationally representative samples of high school students from 1995 to 2005.

Chao got the idea to use the YRBSS for her master’s thesis while she was in Dierker’s Applied Quantitative Methods in Survey Research class. Out of the existing data sets available to examine in that class, Chao chose to use the YRBSS. Then, Striegel-Moore encouraged her to do trend analysis on the data and consider ethnic differences.

The study pulled data from the YRBSS that was administered in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005. During each one of these time points, more than 10,000 students were surveyed.

“The large sample size is nice. You can find specifically significant results,” Chao says.

The researchers found that, among males, white adolescents are the least likely to practice weight control and Hispanic adolescents are the most likely. These results were very interesting to the researchers. According to the study, the authors state “the higher prevalence of overweight among Hispanic male adolescents” may be the reason for the increase in weight control behaviors among that population.

“Previous literature has indicated that people who are more overweight will practice more weight control behaviors, especially the unhealthy weight control behaviors such purging, fasting or using diet products,” Chao says.

Not only are adolescents at risk for eating disorders, the disorders themselves can have serious health effects—leading to death in some sufferers. The National Eating Disorders Association website notes that researcher Patrick Sullivan examined data which indicates that “anorexia nervosa has the highest premature fatality rate of any mental illness.”

For the YRBSS, weight control behaviors included dieting done to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight; or eating less food, fewer calories, or foods low in fat to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight. Behaviors also included using diet products such as pills, engaging in purging behavior, exercising or engaging in vigorous exercise.

The prevalence of dieting and diet product use among all female adolescents increased in the years studied. In addition, the mean Body Mass Index (BMI) among female adolescents has also been increasing. Among female adolescents, black females are the least likely and white females are the most likely to practice weight control.

“This result is consistent with findings that black females have flexible concepts of beauty and emphasize making what you’ve got work for you and thus are more satisfied and comfortable with their bodies,” the study noted.

Overall, Chao says that although other literature on the subject has suggested that there are no ethnic differences in weight control behavior, it was surprising that, in her research, the ethnic differences were consistent over the 10 years studied.

By Corrina Balash Kerr, associate director of Media Relations