Restrictive eating

A recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health sought to determine the impact of previously learned risk factors for extreme restrictive eating on adolescent dieters, and whether these factors cause them to transition to restrictive eating habits. It was determined that familial risk factors such as poor family support were long-term risk factors for the development of restrictive eating, while social factors such as weight-specific peer teasing were short term risk factors of restrictive eating. Psychological risk factors such as depression and low self-esteem played a role in both the long-term and the short-term development of restrictive eating.


Dieting is common among youths, and more that 50% of adolescents and young adults support dieting. In some, this dieting can turn into more destructive patterns of restrictive eating, and eventually evolve further into extreme restrictive eating such as anorexia nervosa, or other extreme forms of weight control. These practices ultimately put adolescents and young adults at a higher risk of mortality and suicide.

Despite having all of this information, little is actually known about what influences individuals to progress from dieting to restrictive eating. This is why researchers examined whether psychological, familial, and social risk factors played a role in adolescents and young adults transitioning from dieting to restrictive eating in a 5 year period They then compared participants who were practicing restrictive eating and those that weren’t after a 5 year period to determine whether the above risk factors correlated with those who had transitioned to restrictive eating.

Participants chosen were already a part of Project Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults. In-class surveys were administered and heights, as well as weights, were taken during the 1998-1999 school year. In 2003-2004, follow-up surveys were administered. Of the original 4,746 participants, 2,516 completed the follow-up survey.

What the researchers found was that familial risk factors, specifically poor family communication and maternal dieting, predicted long-term risk for escalating to restrictive eating, while social risk factors of weight-related peer teasing and peer dieting, as well as body image issues, were short-term correlates of transitioning to restrictive eating. Interestingly, psychological risk factors, specifically depression and low self-esteem, were determined to be both long-term risk factors as well as short-term correlates of initiating restrictive eating.

This research correlated with previous studies, which found that familial risk factors have a more substantial impact on disordered eating in early adolescence, whereas social risk factors play a bigger part in young adulthood. Parents are found to have a bigger influence on long-term decision making, while peers are found have a bigger influence on short-term decisions.

This study is important for improving prevention programs. It suggests that rather than focus on disorder-specific issues such as eating concerns and body issues, the programs should potentially focus on reducing general psychological stress, as it seems to play a huge role in both long-term and short-term development of restrictive eating.


Written By: Samantha Guy, BSc

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