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Sexual abuse increases eating disorders in women

A research shows that women who are sexually abused during childhood run an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.

health and fitness Updated: Dec 24, 2005 15:44 IST

A recent research has found that women who are sexually abused during childhood run an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.

The study, by Anita Hund and Dorothy Espelage, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found that sexual abuse combined with psychological distress like depression, and a condition of emotional disconnection known as alexithymia, a condition in which a person is unable to recognize or describe his or her own emotions, can lead to eating disorders.

As a part of the research, data was gathered through a written survey administered to 608 undergraduate and graduate women at a large Midwestern university, producing 589 usable responses. The researchers found that the data fit their hypothetical model of how the various factors such as childhood sexual abuse, general psychological distress, alexithymia, restrictive eating behaviors and attitudes, body dissatisfaction, and bulimic eating behaviours, were associated and how they affected the level of risk for an eating disorder.

According to Hund, these factors play an important role in the starting and sustaining of eating disorders.

"Those factors appear to play an important role not only in how eating disorders get started, but more importantly in how they keep going. What sends one woman over the line, and not her classmate (with a similar background), probably has a lot to do with how they experience emotions. In reality, the association between a history of childhood sexual abuse and disordered eating behaviors is very complex," she said.

The study's results validate a lot of what many counselors and clinicians already believe or suspect. Hund further said that the results of the study showed that eating disorders are a way of dealing with emotions that have been bottled up.

"These study results fit into the idea that eating disordered behaviors actually have a purpose. Somebody who s abused is of course going to have some issues around dealing with emotions, and this is their solution to functioning," she added.

The study was published in the October issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology.

First Published: Dec 24, 2005 15:44 IST