Eating disorders are often thought of as health problems that typically plague teens and young adults. However, a new University of Minnesota School of Public Health study suggests that a majority of middle-aged adults may have problematic eating behaviors as well, which can lead them to carry excess weight and risk developing obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes or high-blood pressure.
The study, which was led by PhD student Ms. Cynthia Yoon, was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. The paper was co-written by university professors Drs. David Jacobs, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and Daniel Duprez, associate professor Lyn Steffen, and assistant professor Susan Mason.
Data from the study came from the school’s long-running Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which includes up to 25 years of survey and health information from more than 5,000 participants.
For this new study, Ms. Yoon looked at surveys given to adults age 27-41 years who were in CARDIA for 10 years. The questionnaire examined eating and weight-patterns, and measured eight potential problematic behaviors and attitudes toward food. Points were given to answers that showed evidence of food-related anxieties, compensatory actions, overeating and loss of control, dieting, and shape and weight concerns.
When Ms. Yoon analyzed the surveys, she discovered a concerning trend among the respondents.
“We found that 55 percent of people who took the survey showed indications of problematic eating behaviors or issues,” said Ms. Yoon.
The researchers then looked at the body mass index (BMI) of the participants and found a link between the existence of problematic eating behaviors and carrying excess weight. Excess weight has been widely shown to lead to various severe illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and diabetes.
“Compared to normal eaters, people with even just one problematic behavior had a greater body mass index,” said Ms. Yoon.
For example, those who showed a single element of disordered eating had a mean BMI approximately 1.1 kg/meter-squared greater than normal eaters. Individuals with 4-5 points had even higher BMI of 5.6 kg/meters-squared compared to people with no discernable issues with eating.
The study also found that CARDIA health records showed the BMI increases existed 3 to 10 years before the survey was taken and up to 15 years afterward, possibly indicating longstanding eating problems among the participants.
The investigators said the results show that problematic eating is a serious problem among middle-aged adults, and that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners should take steps to continue addressing the issue.