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Eating Disorders Affect Half a Million U.S. Teens

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A study released on March 7, 2011 in Archives of General Psychiatry online shows that more than half a million U.S. teens have an eating disorder, both male and female.

Kathleen Merikangas, PhD, senior investigator at the intramural research program at the National Institute of Mental Health, and colleagues examined data from a national representative sample of U.S. adolescents, known as the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. The sample included face-to-face interviews with more than 10,000 teens ages 13 to 18 and is billed as the largest and most comprehensive analysis on the topic of teenage eating disorders.

Teens were asked if they had ever had an eating disorder and if they had had one within the past 12 months. Included were anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa is marked by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Bulimia involves a cycle of bingeing and then compensating for overeating by self-induced vomiting or other behaviors. Binge eating disorder is marked by recurrent binge eating without compensating behaviors.

For lifetime prevalence, the researchers found:

• For anorexia, about 0.3 percent of the teens were affected (55,000)
• For bulimia, about 0.9 percent (170,000)
• For binge eating, about 1.6 percent (300,000)

When the researchers looked at 12-month prevalence, they found lower rates, with 0.2 percent of teens affected with anorexia, 0.6 percent for bulimia and 0.9 percent for binge eating.

More than half the affected teens had depression, anxiety or some other mental disorder. Sizable numbers also reported suicide thoughts or attempts.

Merikangas said the results actually underscore the seriousness of eating disorders.

The sample was cross-sectional, a kind of snapshot in time, conducted over a span of two years.

In review of her own medical literature, comparing those findings with the new data, Merikangas said that anorexia has remained fairly stable since 1990, while bulimia and binge eating have both increased about twofold.

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