It’s long been known that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are associated with other challenging health issues. Heart problems, osteoporosis, tooth decay, esophageal damage, pancreatitis and kidney failure, among many things, have been linked with eating disorders.
But now a new study has associated the conditions with long-term negative economic consequences, including lower earnings.
Women diagnosed with eating disorders or who engaged in disordered eating “were at a distinct disadvantage when trying to achieve socioeconomic independence in early adulthood,” according to “The Influence of Adolescent Eating Disorders or Disordered Eating Behaviors on Socioeconomic Achievement in Early Adulthood,” published last month in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. In addition, women with such problems “had lower levels of educational attainment, personal income, and lower odds of owning a home in early adulthood compared to females who did not report” the illnesses — but “these detrimental associations were not present among males,” the study said.
“My suspicion is that girls who are preoccupied with weight and appearance and insecure at very young age — that follows you,” said Jennifer Tabler, a PhD candidate in the University of Utah’s Sociology department and the study’s lead author, in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “Your decision-making process about your life choices are going to be affected by it.”
In the study, researchers drew on data from Add Health, a “community based sample of adolescents,” to examine the education, income and home ownership of those who self-reported having been diagnosed with an eating disorder or engaging in disordered eating. Researchers looked at a group of 166 men and 454 women who reported such behavior.
Tabler noted that women who struggled with disordered eating earned 13 percent less, had 27 percent lower odds of owning a home and got .2 percent fewer years of schooling — a difference that may seem inconsequential, but “could mean the difference between a bachelor’s degree and not obtaining a bachelor’s degree,” as she noted in a follow-up e-mail.
Tabler, 26, said her research was inspired by her struggle with bulimia, which she battled from age 12 to 17 and periodically in college. Citing her own divorce, she said an eating disorder “impedes [women’s] ability to make other decisions in their life.”
“People think of eating disorders just as a wealthy white girl problem,” Tabler said. But she said the effects of a disorder follow its victims into adulthood.
“It’s just something you carry your whole life and you can’t ever turn it off,” she said.