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Teenage eating disorders linked to early childhood eating habits

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Overeating, undereating and ‘fussiness’ in early childhood can be linked to anorexia and binge-eating in adolescence, and the risk is greater for girls, finds a new UCL-led study funded by the Medical Research Foundation and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The research, published today (5 August 2019) in the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ British Journal of Psychiatry, is the most comprehensive study to date to look at the association between childhood eating habits and adolescent eating disorders and diagnoses.

Researchers analysed data from 4,760 participants from Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (Children of the 90s), a population based longitudinal cohort of parents and their children born in the South West of England in 1991 and 1992.

Information from parents reporting on their children’s eating habits was collected at eight points during the ages of one and nine and then linked with eating disorder outcomes at age 16.

The results show that children with increasing levels of overeating throughout childhood have a six per cent increased risk (from 10 to 16 per cent) of engaging in binge eating compared to children with low overeating.

First author Dr Moritz Herle, from UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, said: “From a large robust cohort we were able to identify patterns of eating behaviours at an early age that may be potential markers of later eating disorders.

“Our results suggest that children who show high and persistent levels of fussy eating might be at increased risk of developing anorexia nervosa, and children who overeat persistently are at a higher risk of binge-eating in their teenage years.”

The team also found that persistent undereating during childhood was associated with a six per cent increased risk (from two to eight per cent) of anorexia in adolescents, but only in girls. Children who were fussy eaters throughout childhood had a two per cent risk increase for anorexia (from one to three per cent), compared to children who were not fussy eaters.

Lead author Dr Nadia Micali, also from UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, added: “Our study helps us to understand who might be at risk of eating disorders and extends what we know from previous studies and form clinical observations.

“Eating disorders are highly complex and influenced by interactions of biological, behavioural, and environmental factors and this study helps to identify some of the behavioural mechanisms behind these associations.”

Find out more about Dr Nadia Micali's research project - "The developmental role of metabolism, appetite and growth in eating disorders: exploring novel longitudinal risk pathways" - which is funded by the Medical Research Foundation and the MRC. ALSPAC is supported by the MRC, Wellcome and the University of Bristol.

Read the full research paper online.