A group of researchers at Drexel University may have found a new risk factor for eating disorders. The team, led by Michael Lowe, a professor of psychology at Drexel, has discovered that people who are obese in childhood may be at increased risk for developing an eating disorder.
Traditionally, eating disorders are seen as being caused by psychological and social factors. One such psychological factor is low self-esteem. A social factor is pop culture’s presentation of the “ideal” body.
According to the study, however, women who gained a lot of weight during their developmental years may be more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. The women with bulimia nervosa who were studied weighed more than their peers during adolescence before they developed the disorder. In addition, women with anorexia nervosa weighed more than their classmates in grades one through six. For clarification, the traditional onset of anorexia nervosa is from puberty to an individual’s late teens, but bulimia’s onset is in the late teens to one’s early 20s.
“Researchers knew that there is sometimes a history of obesity in those who develop anorexia or bulimia nervosa, but our work has shown that some degree of overweight is the norm in those who later develop an eating disorder,” Lowe wrote in an email. “Because most clinicians don’t know this, they may not realize that a patient at a healthy weight (say, 5’5”, weighing 130) may still weigh significantly less than they once did and that this discrepancy may continue to fuel her eating disorder.”
“We’ve shown that individuals with both anorexia and bulimia nervosa tend to be overweight prior to developing their eating disorder. And we’ve shown that the size of the discrepancy between an individual’s past highest weight and her current weight — which we call ‘weight suppression’ — predicts how severe and long-lasting the disorder will be.”
Lowe noted that bulimia was first studied in the late 1970s, approximately the beginning of the obesity epidemic. As the number of obese individuals rose, so did the number of people turning to intense diets in hopes of losing weight.
“There is evidence that a disorder that appears similar to what we call anorexia nervosa has existed for hundreds of years,” Lowe wrote when asked about the historical precedent of that disorder. “In previous historical periods, the frightening refusal to eat and low body weights were understood in different terms (e.g., conspiring with the devil or extreme religious asceticism), but the symptoms were similar. However, we don’t know if these women weighed more than average before they started losing weight, which does appear to be the case with what we now call anorexia nervosa.”
Lowe’s team is currently working on two projects, with grants funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. The first study is conducted along with researchers from the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders. This four-year project began in 2012 and uses cell phones to survey participants about their daily behavior. The other grant is a five-year study in collaboration with Anna Rose Childress, a professor and neuroimaging researcher from the University of Pennsylvania. This project examines how the brain responds to pictures of various foods.
Eating disorders have been a focus on Drexel’s campus recently; Delta Phi Epsilon hosted its annual “Eating Disorder Awareness Week” from March 2-6. The series of events was sponsored by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. DPE was the first international sorority to provide regular support to an organization fighting against eating disorders. The week’s events were organized by senior business marketing major Anna DeMarco.
DeMarco first became involved in ANAD Week when she was a freshman. “Every year I have held some role on the committee, and this year I was lucky enough to run the entire event,” she wrote in an email.
“The planning process is long,” she wrote. “Because it’s a full week of events, there’s a lot of coordination involved.” DeMarco had a committee of sorority sisters who helped with outreach, fundraising, event planning, and public relations.
“My favorite event from this year was ‘Trash Your Insecurities.’ It’s just such a fun and empowering event,” she wrote. “What we do is [we] set up a table outside and have a big trash can that we decorated. Then we invite people to come over, write something they are insecure about on a piece of paper and then throw it out.”
Some events, such as a scale-destroying event and a midnight munchies sale were canceled due to inclement weather. However, the sorority was able to host several other events, such as a speaker, yoga and a pasta dinner.