University researchers study impact of depression on eating disorders

Adolescents with depression, among other factors, may have an increased risk of developing eating disorders, according to research from a University professor.

The research was published in a study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders and was authorized by Janet Liechty, assistant professor of Social Work and Medicine, and Meng-Jung Lee, a doctoral student.

Liechty and Lee examined how the psychosocial conditions in adolescents effect the risk of developing problematic eating behaviors as young adults.

“We wanted to look at whether psychosocial and behavioral risk factors impact disordered eating in young adulthood,” Liechty said. “We know they do in adolescence, but what we want to know is if they persist to be risk factors in disordered behavior in young adulthood.”

The researchers used a national data set of adolescents in grades 7-12 in 1994-1996 to examine the psychosocial and behavioral predictors of eating disorder indicators. There were four predictors in total.

The two behavioral predictors were dieting and extreme weight loss behaviors, such as purging, using laxatives and using diet pills to lose weight.

“We want to find out whether these kids started to use those dangerous unhealthy weight loss behaviors that would predict later behaviors,” Lee said.

The other two psychosocial predictors were depression and body image distortion, which is when a person has an inaccurate perception of his or her body.

“One girl actually has a healthy weight, but she thinks she is overweight. We called that an overestimation,” Lee said. “We use this misconception to predict whether it will be a risk factor.”

Seven years later, the same adolescents were examined at the ages of 18-26 for several outcomes. Liechty attempted to predict these outcomes using the psychosocial factors in the teenagers.

“The outcomes we looked at were whether they reported binge eating, whether they reported of ever being diagnosed with an eating disorder and extreme weight loss behaviors,” Liechty said.

Lee said the study found that those psychosocial and behavioral factors all contributed to later unhealthy eating behaviors.

Among men, early-life dieting persisted into adulthood, and early body image distortion predicted eating disorder diagnosis in adulthood.

Among women, early dieting predicted unhealthy extreme weight loss behavior and early extreme weight loss behavior predicted extreme eating disorder diagnosis.

Depression, Liechty said, was the biggest and most important of the predictors. It predicted extreme weight loss behavior, eating disorder diagnosis and binge eating in both men and women.

“Eating disorder diagnoses emerges in young adulthood, so it’s an important time to pay attention,” Liechty said. “A lot of us have crazy eating habits as adolescents, but when those patterns get fixed and persist overtime, that’s when they can really wreak havoc on our systems.”

Joanna King, a local licensed clinical professional counselor, said it is difficult to confront a person who shows signs of an eating disorder because the disorder is a very strong compulsion, and the person will usually deny that anything is going on.

King suggested talking to the person first and showing concern for that person in a nonjudgmental way.

“It’s a long road to recovery,” she said. “The quicker you get help, the easier it will be to manage the eating disorder. It may start out feeling like you’re in control, but it ends up with the eating disorder taking control of you and your life, so talk to someone as soon as you are noticing that there’s a pattern.”

Some signs of an eating disorder include rapid weight loss or gain, not eating in front of other people, refusing to go out to eat, compulsive exercising, sleep disorders, isolation, depression and anxiety.

Liechty said teenagers need to be educated about the impact of depression and extreme weight loss behaviors to the body. They need to learn to take care of their body and to treat their body like a friend, she added.

“Kids are trying to lose weight, trying to diet, and they are going about it in unsafe ways,” she said. “Not only is it not effective, but it decreases their self-advocacy and actually disrupts their appetite regulation. We’re concerned about that. That warrants education.”

Jacqui can be reached at [email protected]