Binge eating is prevalent across socioeconomic status (SES) groups in the United States, but researchers don’t know if risk factors for the disorder, such as dieting, vary by group. A new study involving University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) researchers and data examined the prevalence of several binge eating risk factors among adolescents of different economic backgrounds and found they do indeed vary from group-to-group.
The study was recently published in The International Journal of Eating Disorders and led by PhD student Caroline West at Kent State University.
“Binge eating is common among adolescents and is linked to depressed mood, anxiety, and obesity,” says West. “This is the first study to explore the impact of several risk factors for binge eating among youth from different socioeconomic groups.”
SPH Professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer co-authored the study, which used data from her long-running Project EAT study examining the eating and health behaviors of thousands of adolescents as they mature into adulthood.
“Project EAT allows us to examine many aspects of eating and weight over critical periods of the life course and among young people from varied backgrounds,” says Neumark-Sztainer. “The current study points to a need to address disordered eating behaviors, particularly binge eating, among populations from low-income backgrounds.”
For the study, Ms. West and the research team reviewed surveys from 2,179 individuals involved in Project EAT during early/middle adolescence and five years later during late adolescence/emerging adulthood. The socioeconomic status (SES) of their family was based on their parent’s highest educational level, employment status, and other related variables, including family eligibility for public assistance or free or reduced‐cost school meals.
The study found that among high-SES adolescents:
- Those at higher weight status were 3.2 times as likely to binge eat as those of healthy weight.
- People reporting body dissatisfaction were 2.6 times as likely to binge eat as those not reporting body dissatisfaction.
- People who reported dieting were 4.0 times as likely to binge eat as those who did not diet.
- People who experienced family weight-related teasing were 2.3 times as likely to binge eat as those who were not teased.
Among adolescents from low-SES backgrounds:
- Those at higher weight status were 1.5 times as likely to binge eat as those of healthy weight.
- People reporting dieting were 2.2 times as likely to binge eat as those who did not diet.
- People who reported instances of food insecurity — routinely lacking a predictable, sufficient amount of food to eat — were 1.4 times as likely to binge eat as those who regularly have enough food to eat.
“There are a lot of implications for providers who might see adolescents from lower-income communities,” says West. “While it’s still important to provide them with typical care and resources for treating binge eating, it’s also important to address issues, such as food insecurity, that might be salient in that population by connecting patients with food assistance programs, such as SNAP or WIC.”
As for those from a higher-SES background, West said it is important to target body dissatisfaction among adolescents in that group as well as dieting behaviors in all socioeconomic populations.
West plans to continue researching the risk factors for disordered eating behaviors in low-SES groups to better understand the threats and possible interventions for this high-risk population.