Nutrition Research Newsletter

Puberty And Eating Disorders

Puberty And Eating Disorders – Brief Article

Puberty, being a very emotionally and physically hard time, has been associated with both disordered eating and negative body image. Body fat changes and early maturation are two physical symptoms that some studies claim to be contributors to eating disorders. However, the research that has found positive associations between puberty and eating disorders usually could not identify one specific aspect of puberty to be the contributor. Therefore, it is also difficult to generalize how puberty may be associated with psychopathology.

Two current researchers from Minnesota evaluated the relationship between two specific pubertal experiences (age of onset of puberty and perception of prepubertal weight) to disordered eating, body image, depression, self-esteem and related variables. Ackard and Peterson conducted two studies within the larger one. First, 267 females were selected and grouped into one of three categories based on their self-reported age at onset of puberty (11 years or younger; 12-13 years; or 14 years or older). In the second part of the study, 222 females were selected and grouped into one of three categories based on their perception of prepubertal weight (underweight, average, or overweight). All women were asked about their eating disorder history and completed The Eating Disorders Inventory-2 (EDI-2) and the Bulimia Test-Revised (BULIT-R). The Body Image Assessment (BIA) was used to assess perception of current and ideal body shape. Depression and self-esteem were also evaluated with specific instruments.

Age of onset of puberty was associated with four EDI-2 subscales (Asceticism, Drive for Thinness, Impulse Regulation, and Social Insecurity). Early-maturing females indicated a stronger emphasis on asceticism and drive for thinness, poorer impulse control, and greater social insecurity than the females who matured at 12-14 years of age. Age of pubertal onset was related to participants’ ideal body figure, with early maturing girls preferring a more slender ideal figure than average or late-maturing girls. Of girls maturing at 11 years or younger, 24.7% indicated they had some type of eating disorder, compared with 21.3% and 15.7% in the average and late-maturer groups, respectively. Results from the second study showed that females who perceived themselves as overweight prior to puberty reported greater body dissatisfaction and bulimia symptomatology, less impulse control and a stronger emphasis on asceticism, drive for thinness and perfectionism. These females also perceived their current body figure to be larger and reported more bulimic thoughts and behaviors than those who perceived themselves to be average or underweight. Of those who believed they were overweight prior to puberty, 50% reported having had an eating disorder, compared with 12.2% of those who believed they were average and 14.9% of those who believed they were underweight.

Findings from the current study do not support the early onset of puberty as a consistent risk factor for disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. However, the perception of being overweight prior to puberty appears to place some females at risk for the development of an eating disorder and increased body dissatisfaction. One limitation of the study is that the retrospective questioning that assessed the perception of prepubertal weight may result in bias. Individuals who are dissatisfied with their body image now or who have an eating disorder may be more likely to “remember” being overweight during puberty. Clearly, more research is needed to evaluate other aspects of puberty and their relationship to eating disorders.

Diann M. Ackard and Carol B. Peterson, Association Between Puberty and Disordered Eating, Body Image, and Other Psychological Variables, International Journal of Eating Disorders 29(2): 187-194 (March 2001) [Correspondence to: Diann M. Ackard, Ph.D., Westwood Lake Office Park, 8421 Wayzata Blvd., Ste. 305, Golden Valley, MN 55426. E-mail:]

COPYRIGHT 2001 Technical Insights, a divison of John Wiley & Sons.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group