(Salt Lake City, UT) – In 2011 and 2013, 4% of female students and 1.4% of male students in grades 9-12 in Utah public schools met a threshold for underweight combined with eating disordered behaviors, totaling more than 1,000 boys and nearly 3,000 girls in the state. These same students had higher rates of depression, suicide ideation and attempt, bullying, and physical and sexual violence, according to a new report released by the Utah Department of Health (UDOH).
“While we’ve monitored overweight and obesity among adolescents and the associated health risks for years, we haven’t looked into the prevalence and health effects of anorexia and eating disorders before now. What we found is that nearly 4,000 adolescents in Utah may be at risk for an eating disorder and that these adolescents have significant physical and mental health risks,” said Michael Friedrichs, UDOH epidemiologist.
The increased risk for adverse physical and mental health problems for adolescents with and without potential eating disorders is startling. The data analysis showed that adolescents with potential eating disorders reported feeling so sad or hopeless for two weeks that they stopped doing their usual activities at a rate of 42.3%, compared to 25.9% of adolescents without a potential eating disorder. Similarly, students with potential eating disorders reported that they considered suicide, made a suicide plan, attempted suicide, and were injured as a result of a suicide attempt at much higher rates than students without an eating disorder.
In addition, adolescents with potential eating disorders reported feeling less safe and reported more experiences of violence, compared to adolescents without a potential disorder. Of those students who reported being bullied on school property, 33.2% had a potential eating disorder, compared to 21.5% of students without. Drastically higher rates of physical and sexual violence by a dating partner (32.2% and 38% respectively) were also found for students with potential eating disorders compared to those without (5.6% physical violence and 9.5% sexual violence).
The UDOH analyzed data from the 2011 and 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) to determine the rates of potential eating disorders among Utah adolescents and the associated adverse health experiences. Adolescents with potential eating disorders were defined as students with a Body Mass Index (BMI) below the 15th percentile and who reported they had one or more disordered eating behaviors. The most commonly reported disordered eating behaviors for underweight adolescents were trying to lose weight (12.1%), followed by fasting for 24 hours or more to lose weight (8.8%), vomiting or using laxatives to lose weight (4.2%), and taking diet pills (1.7%). All of these behaviors had higher rates for girls.
“Prevention and early intervention of these behaviors is critical to the long-term health and well-being of our young people,” said Megan Waters, violence prevention specialist with the UDOH. “We recommend that healthcare providers screen adolescents for eating disorders and associated risk behaviors and that trainings for school personnel and parents be made available to help them better understand the connections between eating disorders and other behaviors such as suicide ideation and dating violence.”
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Violence & Injury Prevention Program