Understanding Factors Leading to Eating Disorders

Women entering college experience multiple transitions that can influence the development of an eating disorder. The absence of meals shared with family, the sudden increase in independence and the stress of juggling academic responsibilities can create pressure that leads to disordered patterns of eating behaviors.

In a recent study by researchers at the University of Georgia, Sarah Fischer and colleagues in the Department of Psychology examined particular characteristics that may influence the development of eating disorders in college students.

One trait examined by the team was impulsivity, with a specific focus on negative urgency (NU), a component of impulsivity. NU is understood to be a factor involved in the development of certain behaviors, such as substance addiction and eating disorders. It is also believed to be a maladaptive coping strategy, taking place when individuals are involved in immediate coping patterns that result in negative consequences.

Given the stress that is often involved with the transition to college, those women who have a history of maladaptive coping strategies are more susceptible to engaging in behavior patterns that may result in negative outcomes, such as those that lead to eating disorders like bulimia. Based on this pattern, Fischer recruited 355 female students and examined their eating patterns at the beginning of their first semester, and again at the end of the semester.

The analysis showed that the women’s eating patterns tended to show signs of binge eating at Time 2 when Time 1 showed a high level of NU, when compared with those who had little or no NU at Time 1. Fischer also found that when NU was present along with expectations of being thin, the student was more likely to engage in purging behaviors by Time 2.

In addition, Fischer found that women who exhibited NU and an expectation of being thin more frequently engaged in purging than those who had more moderate expectations of being thin or lower levels of NU at Time 1. Fischer says that this study is the first to provide a clear connection between NU and fluctuations in bulimic tendencies.

The study’s findings show that an expectation of being thin could be used as a way to target specific groups of women for education and prevention efforts. The study’s findings show that there is a definitive link between NU at the start of college and future binge eating, as well as a connection based on an expectation of being thin.

The findings are useful for detecting those students who are at an increased risk for the development of eating disorders as they begin college. The detection of higher levels of NU and an expectation of thinness may help identify women who would benefit from education about the signs and risk factors involved with the development of eating disorders.

The study is published in a recent issue of the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

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