April 11, 2018
2 min read

Disordered eating behaviors linked to future depressive symptoms, bullying

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Kirsty S. Lee
Tracy Vaillancourt

Symptoms of disordered eating behavior were associated with later depressive symptoms and bullying in adolescence, according to study results published in JAMA Psychiatry.

“A handful of studies have identified disordered eating to be a consequence of being bullied by peers. However, most studies have not differentiated between eating disorder thoughts (eg, “I am terrified about being overweight”) and behavior (eg, “I vomit after eating”),” study authors Kirsty S. Lee, PhD, and Tracy Vaillancourt, PhD, from the Counselling Psychology program at University of Ottawa in Canada, wrote. “Currently, questions remain as to whether clinically significant disordered eating behavior is an antecedent or consequent of bullying by peers among adolescent girls and boys.”

Lee and Vaillancourt examined the simultaneous and longitudinal connections between bullying, disordered eating behavior and symptoms of depression in a 5-year cohort study of 612 adolescents using a cascade model. They collected annual data, starting in 2008 when the participants were in grade 5. Each year, participants completed questionnaires in grades 7 to 11 that asked about frequency and type of bullying. Researchers examined disordered eating behavior using the Short Screen for Eating Disorders and depressive symptoms using the Behavior Assessment System for Children–Second Edition.

At every time point during the 5-year period, researchers found that bullying by peers was concurrently associated with disordered eating behavior and depressive symptoms (P < .01). Furthermore, disordered eating behavior related to long-term depressive symptoms at every time point (P < .02) and to bullying at two time points (P < .04) among teenaged girls and boys.

“Most previous studies have shown that bullying leads to poor mental health, but this is one of the first to show that disordered eating behavior can increase the risk of being bullied. This is probably because eating disorders are highly stigmatized, and people mistakenly believe that people with an eating disorder are attention seeking,” Vaillancourt told Healio Psychiatry.

Analysis showed repeated within-time correlations among bullying, disordered eating behaviors and depression. Notably, the strength of the correlation between disordered eating behavior and depression was consistently higher among girls than boys. Lee and Vaillancourt also observed stability pathways of moderate to high magnitude for bullying, disordered eating behavior and depression. Cross-lag relationships demonstrated that disordered eating behavior repeatedly manifests prior to symptoms of depression and bullying from early to late adolescence.

“This study showed that eating disordered behavior consistently predicted increased depression symptoms and this effect was stronger in girls than in boys,” Vaillancourt said. “Thus, healthy eating habits may play an important role in the prevention of low mood in teenagers.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.