65% of women in U.S. have eating disorders

That is, as long as you trust the source – the hallowed medical journal out of Times Square, SELF Magazine.
The publication surveyed over 4,000 women between the ages of 25 and 45 using this online poll, and concluded that over 6 in 10 U.S. women have, at some point in their lives, experienced “disordered eating.”
Now, note that there’s a big difference between “disordered eating” and the claim I made in the subject line of this post, which I lifted verbatim from News-Medical.net. Read through either article to see what qualifies as “disordered eating.” It could be as simple as dropping your fork on the floor during a meal. (Come to think of it, that would be a dining disorder.)

Determining whether someone has a clinically significant eating disorder can often be as objective as figuring out whether or not a room is dimly lit. Sure, if someone hasn’t eaten anything in two weeks or is frequently seen bent over a toilet expelling gallons of barely digested pistachio ice cream (now isn’t that a visual), then there’s no question that that person’s relationship to food is dysfunctional. But far more often there are grey areas.
That said, this quote from Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and SELF’s partner in the survey, took me by surprise:

“What we found most surprising was the unexpectedly high number of women who engage in unhealthy purging activities,” said Bulik, who is also a nutrition professor in the School of Public Health. “More than 31 percent of women in the survey reported that in an attempt to lose weight they had induced vomiting or had taken laxatives, diuretics or diet pills at some point in their life. Among these women, more than 50 percent engaged in purging activities at least a few times a week and many did so every day.”

31 percent is high. But when you stop to think about it, that’s not a cross-sectional number — in other words, it doesn’t imply that 31 percent of American women exhibit these behaviors at any time. It just means that women spanning a 20-year age cohort have done these things at some point. Given the published figures regarding the prevalance of EDs — something on the order of 5 to 10 percent — this figure makes intuitive sense. It also suggests, happily, that most women who engage in ED behavior quickly or ultimately abandon it.
It’s also possible that eating-challenged women were more likely to respond to the survey; it’s not as though the intent of the damned thing (“FIND OUT IF YOU’RE AT RISK!”) was blinded.
Commensurate with the News-Medical.net headline, the SELF article makes a bogus claim with the line, “Sixty-five percent of American women who responded to a national survey by SELF are disordered eaters.” The simple deployment of the verb “are” contradicts what the article itself goes to some lengths to tell its readers — that women who responded with red-flag material may have engaged in pertinent behaviors only once or twice. And again, the way the magazine used the term “disordered eating,” one might easily create a framework in which the number rises to 90% or sinks to 10% with no change in respondents’ answers.
Eating disorders are a real problem; that’s no secret. But this article is nothing but four pages of statistics manipulation, doomsday bullshit, and cookie-cutter tales of struggling housewives and dieting teens, with nothing in the way of solutions. On the whole, it’s is just what you’d expect from SELF: Something to help sell itSELF.

  1. #1 by tonyl on April 22, 2008 - 11:25 am

    “More than 31 percent of women in the survey reported that in an attempt to lose weight they had induced vomiting or had taken laxatives, diuretics or diet pills at some point in their life.”
    To me, it seems a bit dubious to throw diet pills into the “purging” category. What happens to that number when you take out all of those people who took dexatrim, stacker II, or the various other scam products on the market? While it is entirely appropriate to look at the use of diet pills when discussing eating disorders, I find the conflation of categories a bit suspicious. The pills really should be in their own category.

  2. #2 by sailor on April 22, 2008 - 11:52 am

    Judging by nationwide trends in obesity, diabetes and hypertension, it seems to me the number one eating disorder in the USA is kids eating chips and the rest of the population eating in fast food grease joints.

  3. #3 by olallieberry on April 22, 2008 - 12:23 pm

    Was the survey of SELF readers? I’ve found that the type of woman likely to read this magazine generally has a preoccupation with body image to begin with (although not nearly as likely as readers of Shape or other magazines), so the results could be inaccurate in that way as well.
    That said, as a twenty-three year old woman, I would say my personal experience supports the survey data. It is VERY rare to meet a young woman or girl that has a completely normal, healthy relationship with food. I’ve had many friends and acquaintances with full-blown eating disorders, and countless more who avoid certain (vast) categories of food, eat only at certain hours of the day, eat the same things every single day, etc. So I tend to doubt if the survey numbers are THAT far off.

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