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Girls' Food Choices at Age 9 May Predict Future Eating Disorders

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The foods girls chose to eat when they're younger may indicate their risk of having an eating disorder in their teens, a new study suggests.

In the study, girls whose diets at age 11 included a low percentage of calories from fat, and high percentage from carbohydrates were at increased risk of developing eating disorder symptoms, such as body dissatisfaction, at age 14, and erratic eating patterns in their later teens, the researchers said.

The findings suggest that examining young children's diets may be a way to screen for risky eating patterns and catch problems before they develop into full-blown eating disorders, which are harder to treat, said study researcher Abbigail Tissot, associate director of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

"We might be able to catch some of these behaviors that are just blossoming," Tissot said.

Although eating disorders tend to be associated with life-threatening thinness, such screening could prevent obesity as well, Tissot said. Some girls in the study who were preoccupied with dieting and thinness when they were younger actually went on to overeat when they were older, perhaps because they went so long without listening to their bodies' natural hunger cues, Tissot said.

"When you don’t listen to those hormones, those signals, they sort of stop communicating with you," Tissot said. If children don’t listen to their bodies, "they probably will end up not knowing how to eat properly," when they're older, she said.

Predicting eating disorders

Tissot and colleagues analyzed information from 871 girls, ages 9 to 10, who were tracked the for 10 years. Each year, a dietician interviewed the girls about what they ate over a three-day period, with input from the parents to help determine exact quantities. The girls also filled out questionnaires to assess their eating disorder symptoms.

Results showed a link between eating patterns in girls as young as age 9 and eating disorder symptoms later in life. Nine-year-olds whose diets included a high percentage of protein and a relatively low percentage of carbs were at increased risk for a desire to be thin at ages 11 to 12, the researchers said.

The findings also suggested that eating-disorder behaviors develop along a trajectory, starting with a desire to be thin around ages 9 to 12, which develops into body dissatisfaction around age 14 and erratic eating behavior at ages 18 to 19. Erratic eating behavior refers to inconsistent eating patterns, such as undereating followed by overeating.

Diagnosing at a young age

Information for the study was collected quite a while ago, between 1988 and 1999, the researchers noted. Since then, doctors have seen an increase in eating disorders in girls younger than 11.

That means that it's possible eating disorder signs now show up even earlier than they did in the girls in the study, perhaps around age 7, Tissot said. However, more research is needed to confirm this.

The study was presented at the International Conference on Eating Disorders, held May 3 to 5 in Austin, Texas, and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. It was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Pass it on: The variety of foods eaten at ages 9 to 11 may predict the development of eating disorder symptoms later in life in girls.

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Rachael Rettner
Senior Writer

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.