New Study: Disordered Eating is No Longer a Disease of Affluent Girls

January 26, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

Traditionally, stereotypes around eating disorders imply that it predominantly impacts girls from wealthy backgrounds. A new study from Michigan State University found that boys living in disadvantaged circumstances are at an increased risk for disordered eating; particularly if they have underlying genetic risk factors.  

Megan Mikhail “This is critical information for health care providers who might not otherwise screen for or recognize disordered eating in this population,” said Megan Mikhail, lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate in the MSU Clinical Psychology program. “It is also important for the public more broadly to recognize that eating disorders can affect everyone, including people who do not fit the historical stereotypes.” 

The study, published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science, is the first to look at associations between multiple forms of disadvantage and risk for disordered eating in boys, as well as how disadvantage may interact with biological risks to impact disordered eating in boys. With COVID-19 causing financial hardships for many families, this study is particularly applicable when looking at mental health concerns in young people. 

Using a large population-based sample of male twins from the Michigan State University Twin Registry, they found that boys from more disadvantaged backgrounds reported greater disordered eating symptoms and had earlier activation of genetic influences on disordered eating, which could lead to increased long-term risk.  

The population-based sample allowed the researchers to avoid overlooking individuals who may not be able to afford access to mental health care. They examined factors such as parental income, education, and neighborhood disadvantage to see how they related to disordered eating symptoms in the boys. Since all the participants were twins, they were also able to study the genetic influences on disordered eating. 

“This research is particularly relevant following the COVID-19 pandemic when many families experienced financial hardship,” said Kelly Klump, professor in MSU’s psychology department and co-author of the study. “Those financial stressors are putting many young people at risk for an eating disorder, so it's vital that there be increased screening and access to care for these young people.”