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Researchers Looking Into How and Why Eating Disorders Occur

Eating is controlled by many factors, including appetite, food availability, family, peer, and cultural practices, and attempts at voluntary control.

Dieting to a body weight leaner than needed for health is highly promoted by current fashion trends, Research reports that women's magazines contained 10.5 times as many advertisements and articles promoting weight loss as men's magazines. Exposure to the media-portrayed "thin-ideal" on a sample of 157 female undergraduates produced depression, stress, guilt, shame, insecurity, and body dissatisfaction. Other outside influences that can influence the onset of eating disorders are certain professions and activities with stringent weight requirements and/or body image expectations.

Eating disorders involve serious disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme and unhealthy reduction of food intake or severe overeating, as well as feelings of distress or extreme concern about body shape or weight. Eating disorders are not due to a failure of will or behavior; rather, they are real, treatable medical illnesses in which certain maladaptive patterns of eating take on a life of their own.

Researchers are investigating how and why initially voluntary behaviors, such as eating smaller or larger amounts of food than usual, at some point move beyond some people's control and develop into an eating disorder. Studies on the basic biology of appetite control and its alteration by prolonged overeating or starvation have uncovered enormous complexity, but in the long run have the potential to lead to new treatments for eating disorders.


Research is contributing to advances in the understanding and treatment of eating disorders.

  • Scientists and others continue to investigate the effectiveness of psychosocial interventions, medications, and the combination of these treatments with the goal of improving outcomes for people with eating disorders.

  • Research on interrupting the binge-eating cycle has shown that once a structured pattern of eating is established, the person experiences less hunger, less deprivation, and a reduction in negative feelings about food and eating. The two factors that increase the likelihood of bingeing - hunger and negative feelings - are reduced, which decreases the frequency of binges.

  • Several family and twin studies are suggestive of a high inheritability of anorexia and bulimia, and researchers are searching for genes that confer susceptibility to these disorders. Scientists suspect that multiple genes may interact with environmental and other factors to increase the risk of developing these illnesses. Identification of susceptibility genes will permit the development of improved treatments for eating disorders.

  • Other studies are investigating the neurobiology of emotional and social behavior relevant to eating disorders and the neuroscience of feeding behavior.

  • Scientists have learned that both appetite and energy expenditure are regulated by a highly complex network of nerve cells and molecular messengers called neuropeptides. These and future discoveries will provide potential targets for the development of new pharmacologic treatments for eating disorders.

  • Further insight is likely to come from studying the role of gonadal steroids. Their relevance to eating disorders is suggested by the clear gender effect in the risk for these disorders, their emergence at puberty or soon after, and the increased risk for eating disorders among girls with early onset of menstruation.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health.



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