National Eating Disorders Association
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Eating Disorders & Economics - A Discussion

Lauren Smolar, Helpline Manager

Last week, a study was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders stating that people who struggled with eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors during adolescence earned less money later on in life. These results are interesting, but more work can be done to explore what these results might really mean for individuals who have struggled with eating concerns.

About the Study

The researchers in this study used a sample of adolescents surveyed over time, selecting individuals that self-identified as having an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors. The data was collected over a span of 14 years at four different intervals. This study examined three of the four intervals, measuring variables from the initial start of the collection when participants were 11 to 18 years old and ended in the fourth interval when participants were 24 to 33 years old. The third interval measured eating behaviors and the fourth considered variables measuring socioeconomic independence.

Of the sample selected, a very small amount showed an eating disorder diagnosis (2.29%) and close to 10% of the sample identified partaking in disordered eating behaviors to avoid gaining weight. For both samples, males identified far less than females did with both categories. The results show a negative relationship between those who identified as having an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors and factors indicating socioeconomic independence for women. The men however do not show such a relationship. 

The Results

The research indicates that women who have eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors later in life are more likely to have challenges – at least with the indicators measured which include lower income levels, lower chances of owning a home and lower levels of education completed. These indicators imply that people who have struggled are at a disadvantage. 

However…

More exploration needs to be done to make more sense of what these results may actually mean. While the research has found this negative relationship, there is no explanation for what creates the likelihood of lower socioeconomic independence, and why this relationship appears to only affect women. With a larger sample of men, it would be interesting to see if results differ and it would be interesting to gather more information about what may have impeded women from achieving the same independence levels as women who had not struggled with eating disordered behaviors. 

But…

What this paper does show is that eating disorders are very serious. They are not only medically and psychologically debilitating, but they have consequences later in life that can affect long-term success. It would be interesting to see a follow-up later on in the lives of those studied to see if and/or how socioeconomic independence is affected later in life, as well as whether recovery makes any difference for the results. Additional investigation could include examining who had an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors when surveyed initially and if they were still struggling at the time factors were measured for socioeconomic independence. Results may indicate whether or not treatment has an effect on these outcomes.