A group of teens talking in a classroom.

Event Series: Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating are prevalent among U.S. young people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds

Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, such as binge eating and use of unhealthy weight control behaviors, are prevalent among young people, and new University of Minnesota research has found these problems impact adolescents and emerging adults from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Our study found that high body dissatisfaction and some disordered eating behaviors are more prevalent among young people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds,” said study author and School of Public Health (SPH) researcher Nicole Larson. Larson also noted that most published research informing the treatment and prevention of eating disorders is conducted with middle and upper SES populations.

The research, published in the journal Eating Behaviors, examined data from young people taking part in the Project EAT 2010-2018 study. Project EAT is a long-running study that tracks the general health and well-being of adolescents as they age into adulthood and is led by SPH Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer.

The study found that:

  • High body dissatisfaction and disordered eating are prevalent problems across SES;
  • Among females, high body dissatisfaction and unhealthy weight control behaviors (e.g., skipping meals) were more prevalent and regular use of lifestyle weight management behaviors (e.g., exercise) was less prevalent among those in the low SES group when compared to the middle and/or upper SES group(s).
  • Among males, thinness-oriented eating, unhealthy weight control behaviors, and extreme weight control behaviors (e.g., taking diet pills) were all more prevalent among the low SES group as compared to the middle and/or upper SES group(s).

“There is a need to increase the reach and relevance of efforts to prevent body dissatisfaction and disordered eating to ensure efforts benefit young people across SES groups,” said Larson. “In particular, it is important that intervention curricula designed to promote healthy eating and activity behaviors include messages regarding the health consequences of disordered eating.”

Future studies are needed to examine why these SES patterns regarding body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and regular use of lifestyle behaviors exist. For example, limited access to nutrient-dense foods and opportunities for engaging in physical activity may lead individuals to use unhealthy weight control behaviors.

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