- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It’s not just the epic struggle with calories and the waistline.

Anxious, angry and melancholy, 75 percent of American women admit to “disordered eating” owing to a fear of fatness, distorted self-image and unrealistic expectations about dieting, according to research released yesterday by the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine.

Food has become a complicated issue for women. What they eat — or don’t eat — is often equated with happiness. Some diet even though they are at a healthy weight. Skipping meals, smoking to stay slim and extreme attention to calorie counting is common.

That little holiday weight gain? More than a quarter of women would be “extremely upset” if they put on just five pounds.

“These behaviors cut across racial and ethnic lines and are not limited to any one group,” said Cynthia R. Bulik, a nutrition professor at the campus, who led the research.

“Women who identified their ethnic backgrounds as Hispanic or Latina, white, black or African American and Asian were all represented among the women who reported unhealthy eating behaviors,” she said.

The research was based on a survey of more than 4,000 women who revealed intimate eating habits, from the amount of time they spent dieting to how often they thought about food.

Two-thirds of them were actually on a diet while more than half dieted even though they were of a normal weight. Some said they lied about their dieting — not to mention their weight. Others admitted their weight and body image was “the most important aspect” of their self-identity.

Dieting extremes were not uncommon.

“What we found most surprising was the unexpectedly high number of women who engage in unhealthy purging activities. More than 31 percent of women in the survey reported that in an attempt to lose weight they had induced vomiting or had taken laxatives, diuretics or diet pills at some point,” said Ms. Bulik.

Among those who resorted to this behavior, more than half “engaged in purging activities” a few times a week while many made it a daily habit, she said.

The research will be presented next month at the 2008 International Conference on Eating Disorders in Seattle and was published today in Self magazine.

Disordered eating patterns have some real outcomes. Women in some regions are dying earlier as a result of diseases related to obesity or because they smoke, according to a study released yesterday by the Harvard School of Public Health.

The “reversal of fortune,” as the research puts it, was based on Census Bureau national health statistics from 1961 to 1999, which found that life expectancy for 20 percent of the female population is actually declining, particularly in 180 counties scattered over Appalachia, the Mississippi River Valley, Texas and parts of the Deep South and Midwest.

Disordered eating is picking up momentum as a cultural force.

Both the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the state of New York, which officially hosts “Fashion Week,” have issued new health guidelines for models, child actors and other performers often subject to the rigors of weight loss for vanity’s sake. Yale University, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Illinois are among the many schools that monitor students and athletes for symptoms of dysfunctional eating.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

American women have an uneasy relationship with food and eating, according to research from the University of North Carolina.

75% have disordered eating behaviors or symptoms.

67% of women (excluding those with eating disorders) are trying to lose weight.

53% of dieters are at a healthy weight and are still trying to lose weight.

49% sometimes eat when they”re not hungry.

39% of women say concerns about what they eat or weigh interfere with their happiness.

37% regularly skip meals to try to lose weight.

27% would be “extremely upset” if they gained 5 pounds.

26% cut out entire food groups.

16% have dieted on 1,000 or fewer calories a day.

13% smoke to lose weight.

Source: University of North Carolina


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