Childhood trauma may spur unhealthy eating later
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - College students who went through traumatic experiences as children may be at greater risk of developing an eating disorder, a new study suggests.
Two hundred nine freshmen students completed questionnaires on trauma history at the beginning and at the end of a semester. The students were also asked if they had ever suffered various broad categories of trauma -- such as violent trauma, sexual trauma or the death of a loved one -- and had them rate how severely they had been affected the event.
The subjects were between 18 and 19 years old, 55 percent were female and most - 96.3 percent - were Caucasian. Over the course of the study, 30 students dropped out.
The researchers found that students with a history of trauma -- ranging from the divorce of their parents, to the death of a loved one, to physical or sexual abuse -- were more likely to have symptoms of an eating disorder.
Students who, for example, said they'd suffered a "violent trauma" in the past were more likely than their peers to skip meals, fast, binge-eat or abuse diet pills or laxatives. Bingeing, laxative abuse and vomiting were also more common among students who said they'd been traumatized by divorce or the death of someone they loved.
Previous studies have found that victims of childhood sexual abuse are at increased risk of bulimia and, to a lesser extent, anorexia.
The current findings suggest that a range of childhood traumas may contribute to eating disorder risk, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Joshua M. Smyth, an associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University in New York.
They report the results in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
Overall, Smyth's team found, students with a history of childhood trauma were both more likely to already have eating-related problems and more likely to develop new problems over the course of the semester.
The findings have implications for screening and prevention of eating disorders in college, according to the researchers. It's estimated that 2 percent to 4 percent of college students have an eating disorder, they note, and many more have symptoms that fall short of an eating disorder diagnosis, but are nonetheless serious.
The "most direct" way to reach at-risk college students, Smyth and his colleagues suggest, would be to screen incoming freshman for past traumas, then provide them with information on how to get help.
However, if that is too intrusive, they add, colleges could instead offer an information session to all incoming students on how to get counseling or other supportive services.
SOURCE: International Journal of Eating Disorders, April 2008.