Saturday, March 10, 2007

Eating disorder education programs are really harmful

A new article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that teaching teenagers about eating disorders can make them more knowledgeable about the problem, but it may also make them more likely to engage in eating disorders behaviors.

Yale University researchers found that when they presented female high school students with videos on eating disorders, it met the intended goal of boosting their knowledge about anorexia and bulimia.

However, the team saw that the students didn't necessarily find the results of eating disorders unappealing. Teens who watched a video featuring a woman recovering from an eating disorder became more likely to view girls with eating disorders as "very pretty," and some thought it would be "nice to look like" the woman in the video.

The findings suggest that more research should go into the unintended effects of eating disorder education before such programs are widely used, the researchers conclude in their article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Marlene B. Schwartz (the principal investigator) suggested that having an attractive, articulate woman talk about her eating disorder could inadvertently "glamorize" the condition.
  • 376 female high school students viewed one of two videos on eating disorders.
  • Both videos were the same, except for the "presenter." In one video, the presenter was a young woman identified as a doctor, who told the story of a typical eating disorder patient; in the other, the woman was a "recovered eating disorder patient" who described her personal experience.
  • The students completed questionnaires before and after the video.
  • Overall, the study found, both videos increased the girls' knowledge about anorexia and bulimia.
  • Regardless of which video they saw, the girls were more likely to say afterward that "it's not that hard" to recover from an eating disorder. They were also more likely to believe girls with eating disorders have "strong" personalities.
  • Girls who viewed the video featuring the eating disorder patient were particularly likely to see women with anorexia or bulimia in a positive light.
Some of the discussions of the article suggested that instead of targeting "anti-eating disorders" programs, schools should address eating disorders by promoting healthy eating, exercise and positive body image, and discouraging "weight bias" and teasing based on physical appearance.

In general, I think that this is a correct view to espouse. In essence, by developing eating disorders prevention videos, we are focusing on the elimination of behaviors (or future behaviors) without teaching new behaviors.

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