Many college-age women are obsessed with their weight, but reports of a campus bulimia epidemic may be grossly exaggerated, a new study says.
A 1981 survey at one college reported rates of bulimia as high as 19 percent, while at least one popular magazine suggested as many as half the women on campuses suffer from eating disorders.
However, the researchers, who surveyed nearly 2,000 students at the University of Pennsylvania and then conducted follow-up interviews, found that only about 1.3 percent of female students and 0.1 percent of male students actually fit the clinical diagnosis of bulimia, or binge-purge syndrome. They reported their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"What we found is that a very significant number of the people who respond to these surveys are those who are interested in eating behaviors and that that group tends to overemphasize," said David E. Schotte, an assistant professor of psychology at the Chicago Medical School.
"For instance, many report that they fast frequently. On follow-up, we found this to mean for some that they skip breakfast occasionally.
"Others characterized an eating binge as eating a large bag of chips while studying . . . whereas bulimics tend to consume thousands and thousands of calories at one time, often in secret, followed by self-induced vomiting," added Schotte, co-author of the Journal report with Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania.
Stunkard said the most important factor the researchers used to distinguish true bulimia was whether the respondents purged their systems after eating -- especially if a laxative or some other agent was used.
"That's where the great dropoff between our survey and others came," he said.
Schotte said he believes that less than 0.5 percent of all women of college age actually fit a clinical diagnosis of bulimia. The study also confirmed that bulimia is very rare among men.
"This is not to disparage the seriousness of the problem," he said, "but what we really appear to have here is a society placing a premium on models who are unrealistically thin . . . and a large number of young women who are preoccupied with their own weight and engaging in what we might consider inappropriate attempts to control weight.
"But an occasional abnormal eating pattern," he said, "is not the same thing as a bulimia epidemic."