Novel Early Childhood Predictors for Eating Disorders Give Hope for Improved Treatment

Peter Gillespie ’25

Figure 1: Eating disorders are severe mental illnesses that increase risk of mortality.

Eating disorders are dangerous and severely impairing mental illnesses that have become extremely prevalent in our youth, affecting up to 13% of young women in particular. Previous studies have identified risk factors, such as sleeping habits and parental eating tendencies, but these findings are inconsistent and focus solely on adolescents, limiting their scope. Dr. Garbrielle Carlson at Stony Brook University researches risks for eating disorders in early childhood, positing that certain factors can predict eating disorders as early as three years old. She and her colleagues hypothesized that negative emotionality (how strongly a child exhibits negative emotion), mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, and gender are early childhood predictors of eating disorders.

To test this claim, the researchers considered demographics, psychopathological state, and temperament in a group of three and six year old children. Demographics and initial psychopathological state were collected with comprehensive questionnaires and standardized disorder testing. Temperamental factors were assessed through a set of standardized tasks that were meant to provoke certain emotions, such as solving an “easy” puzzle that cannot actually be solved. Questionnaires regarding the child’s temperament were given to parents as well. After these children reached adolescence, eating disorder symptoms were assessed and bivariate and multivariate analyses were performed to identify associations between childhood factors and eating disorders.

The study found that the female sex, unmarried parents, and lower paternal education are demographic factors associated with body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms. In fact, females were five times more likely to experience anorexia symptoms in adolescence. These findings also suggest the importance of sociodemographic factors, as unmarried parents and lower paternal education could imply lower resources for the child. With temprementatility, greater sensitivity to the environment, impulsivity, and higher positive and negative emotionality were all shown to predict eating disorders. Interestingly, lower levels of shyness at age three were associated with eating disorder symptoms as well, implying that greater social interaction may induce higher levels of social comparison and thus self consciousness. In regards to psychopathology, disorders like ADHD and anxiety that cause a difficulty in regulating mood and behavior also were markers of eating disorder development. Creating this paradigm of early predictors is a vital step towards the early identification and treatment of eating disorders, ensuring that individuals get the care they need as soon as possible.

References:

[1] S. Bufferd, et al., Temperament and psychopathology in early childhood predict body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms in adolescence. Behavior Research and Therapy 150, 104039-104039 (2022). doi: /10.1016/j.brat.2022.104039.

[2] Image retrieved from: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/123994

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