Eating disorder research hampered by limited data

Hospitals and in-patient clinics have seen a spike in youth suffering from eating disorders during the pandemic. Researchers hope that this worrisome trend will shine a light on the need for nationally representative data on disordered eating in adolescents, according to a December 9, 2021 STAT article.

For many years, a questionnaire distributed every other year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) included three questions about disordered eating, but stopped including them in 2013. While other large data sets still track eating disorders, YRBSS is considered the most comprehensive source of behavior data. The YRBSS questionnaire includes a limited number of questions and is changed every cycle based on submissions received by the CDC.

Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and director of STRIPED (Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has advocated for years that the questions on eating disorders should be returned to the YRBSS questionnaire, along with new questions assessing binge eating habits.

“It’s a real gap in our public health systems to have no information on eating disorder symptoms,” she said in STAT.

Austin also commented in a December 8 BuzzFeed article on Instagram’s failure to protect vulnerable young people from content that promotes disordered eating. She noted that kids are learning tricks on social media platforms for hiding their eating disorders and avoiding care.

Also on December 8, Austin was quoted in the Boston Globe on Massachusetts legislation that would provide tax credits to personal care and apparel companies that pledged not to digitally alter the appearance of models in their advertisements.

Read the STAT article: A decade without data: Eating disorder researchers say a gap in CDC survey has left them flying blind

Read the Buzzfeed article: Here’s How Instagram Fails To Protect People At Risk For Eating Disorders From Pro-Anorexia Messaging

Read the Boston Globe article: Legislation aims to promote mental health through realistic advertising images

Read a Q&A with Austin: How social media’s toxic content sends teens into ‘a dangerous spiral’  (Harvard Chan School feature)