• A study shows that one in five young women of European origin and those who face a social disadvantage binge eat. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A new study has shown that two groups of Australian women, aged 18-to-23, face the highest risk of binge eating: young women who speak a European language at home and the socially disadvantaged.
Yasmin Noone

29 Jun 2016 - 2:53 PM  UPDATED 29 Jun 2016 - 2:53 PM

Around one-in-five young women who speak a European language other than English at home, have experienced episodes of binge eating, a new study released this week shows.

Joint research from The University of Queensland, Stockholm University and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, finds that more women aged 18-23 with a European background reported binge eating - consuming unusually large amounts of food in one sitting - than those who speak English or an Asian language at home.

The paper’s lead author, Professor Ilona Koupil explains that this finding was accidental, a random outcome when investigating the broader social patterns of overeating in 12,000 young Australian women.

“We were surprised by the findings as they were unexpected to us,” says Professor Koupil.

“Some women might be under more cultural pressure to conform to certain ideals and norms if they come from a background where [body shape and food] are considered important.”

As a result, the researchers couldn’t conclusively determine whether young women of European origin carry a higher risk of binge eating because of genetic or cultural reasons.

But Professor Koupil reasons that that the cause of this eating pattern relates to European perceptions of food and body image. She proposes that the one in five young Australian women of European origin who binge eat do so to live up to cultural expectations about food, eating and what they should look like.

“We believe there may be differences in social norms and ideals regarding food and body shape between different cultures.

“Some women might be under more cultural pressure to conform to certain ideals and norms if they come from a background where [body shape and food] are considered important.”

The research, published in the journal, Public Health Nutrition, states that over 15 per cent of young Australian women who spoke English at home reported binge eating, while over 16 per cent who spoke English at home but were from another English speaking country also overate.

However, 21 per cent of young women who spoke a European language at home said they purposely binged on food. This was compared to over 14.5 per cent of people of Asian descent who practised binge eating.

“We also found that women who report binge eating also tended to report binge drinking. A higher proportion were past smokers and had a heavier body weight."

Social disadvantage and binge eating: the link

The study also cast light on another major group who reported a high prevalence of binge eating: the socially disadvantaged.

When the researchers set out to examine young women’s experience of mild and major eating disorders, they considered the participant’s financial situation and level of education.

Over 20 per cent of young women facing the most financial disadvantage reported that they had episodes of binge eating.

In comparison, 12.8 per cent of those who engaged in binge eating were from the most financially secure group.

“Young women who had education up to year 12 were the group that seemed to have the highest percentage of binge eaters at 16.4 per cent,” says UQ School of Public Health’s Professor Gita Mishra.

“Thirteen per cent of the group with a university or higher degree also experienced binge eating.”

Professor Koupil suggests that stress plays a role and that young women who face financial hardship basically “binge eat to cope”.

“We also found that women who report binge eating also tended to report binge drinking. A higher proportion were past smokers and had a heavier body weight,” Professor Koupil says.

“The whole cluster of these health behaviours tells us that something common is driving all of these unhealthy practices. One reason could be stress: these behaviours are how these young women cope with that.”

The positive news is that this situation is not set in stone and these young women can be helped.

“We believe the social environment is modifiable. If we reduce the differences in income difficulty or improve the social and economic conditions for all young adult women, we will hopefully improve their health as well.”

Healthcare crisis for treating eating disorders
Australia’s health system is lacking in nearly every area for people with eating disorders.

According to Binge Eating Victoria, Binge Eating Disorder is a psychological illness characterised by frequently eating excessive amounts of food, often when not hungry. Feelings of guilt, disgust and depression often follow a bingeing episode.

The researchers analysed data ascertained from the ongoing Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH).

The results showed that four per cent of women aged 18 to 23 reported symptoms of bulimia nervosa.

Around 16 per cent reported episodes of binge eating and 10 per cent reported behaviours like vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics and fasting.

Over 6,800 study participants were followed up four years later to test to see whether these binge eating habits continued with age. Almost 15 per cent reported episodes binge eating.

“The results were worrying,” says Professor Mishra. “We saw quite a high consistency in reporting these conditions over time: four years on in the study and 15 per cent were still experiencing these same problems.

“This study can shows there is a problem and it is substantial. People need to be aware of the extent of the problem.”

The researchers studied the results of questionnaires, completed by women in 1997 when the women were aged 18-23, and again in 2000 when the women were 22–27 years old. Although the data set is now over 15 years old, Prof Koupil believes the findings are currently relevant.

“We don’t see any reason that these results wouldn’t be true for young women today,” she says. “If you look at the factors associated with eating disorders, they are still present. If anything, the issues might be more serious today.”

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