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Adolescent Eating Disorders Continue into Adulthood

Eating disorder experts are beginning to see a significant increase in the number of adults who are being admitted for treatment. While it is common for eating disorders to develop during adulthood, especially following a traumatic event like a divorce or death of an immediate family member, often the adult is experiencing a resurfacing of eating disorder symptoms that first emerged during adolescence.

Recent research from the University of Minnesota supports this with new evidence showing that adolescents who develop disordered eating patterns are likely to continue the practice into adulthood. The study, conducted over 10 years with more than 2000 adults showed that dieting and weight control practices remained constant or increased between adolescence and a follow-up 10 years later.

Lead author Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and colleagues were surprised to find out the extent of the problems that continued into adulthood. The study’s results, report the authors, show that disordered eating is not exclusively an adolescent problem.

The findings, published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, also support the use of early prevention and intervention before behavioral patterns take hold. With a national focus on fighting obesity, it is important for teens to understand that disordered eating patterns can be counterproductive to weight management goals, say the authors. Instead of engaging in dangerous behaviors, teens should be encouraged to implement healthy eating and physical activity to see success long-term.

In order to track dieting and unhealthy weight management behaviors, along with binge eating, the researchers tracked the data on 2287 young adults from the Project EAT-III: Eating Among Teens and Young Adults study, which was conducted in 31 Minneapolis/St. Paul public schools between 1999 and 2010.

In order to assess behaviors and analyze them over time, the researchers asked the students to complete in-class surveys and questions about sociodemographic measures. At the 10-year follow-up, the same individuals completed online or mailed paper surveys.

The findings are important for those clinicians who work with adolescents to help them manage their weight. Understanding that habits that develop during adolescence can continue well into adulthood may help clinicians work to screen their patients to evaluate whether any dangerous behaviors are being misused for weight loss purposes.

The study shows one way in which the national effort to reduce obesity may run counter to the efforts by eating disorder experts to provide awareness about dangerous weight loss behaviors. Teens may require extensive education to help them understand the difference between healthy weight management tools and disordered eating behaviors.

There is still hope.

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