Where female adolescents grow up can influence eating disordered behaviors

January 12, 2022 - Caroline Kraft

Megan Mikhail, a graduate student in Clinical Science, has discovered a link between the neighborhoods female adolescents grow up in and their risk of developing disordered eating patterns. 

Graduate student Megan Mikhail's (pictured left) novel study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, uncovers a relationship between socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and higher levels of disordered eating among female adolescents and teenagers. Disordered eating can mean any kind of eating patterns that stem from an unhealthy relationship with food - such as binging, purging, restricting, or avoiding certain foods altogether - and can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

While previous research has shown that socioeconomic disadvantages, such as lower household income and a lack of community resources, are linked to poorer mental and physical health, Mikhail’s study is the first to examine the effects of neighborhood disadvantages on disordered eating. 

"Prior research on eating disorders focused on individuals from relatively advantaged backgrounds, as those individuals could better access and afford treatment, and thus, were overrepresented in clinical settings where research took place," explained Mikhail. "However, recent research has shown that the stressors that come from living in a disadvantaged neighborhood may actually amplify the risk of developing an eating disorder."

The participants in the study were 2,922 twin females between 8 and 17 years old from the Michigan State University Twin Registry. Parents rated their disordered eating behaviors, including binge eating and weight concerns, as well as their pubertal status. Neighborhood disadvantage was calculated based on each family’s address and 17 community-level indicators including unemployment rate in the area, median home value, and percentage of people in the area living under the poverty threshold.

The study's findings suggest that the more disadvantaged a neighborhood is, the more likely female adolescents are to develop disordered eating symptoms. Additionally, the study revealed that when paired with a higher genetic predisposition to disordered eating, living in a disadvantaged neighborhood might be particularly likely to trigger disordered eating in female children and teenagers with an underlying biological risk. 

Mikhail hopes that her study's findings can inform better treatments for girls struggling with eating disorders. “Treatment and prevention efforts for eating disorders have traditionally been focused on intervention at the individual level, such as providing therapy to a single person," explained Mikhail. "But this study's results suggest that efforts to increase community resources like grocery stores, community centers, and healthcare may also be important in improving mental health and reducing eating disorder risk,” Mikhail said.

Eating disorders can take a major physical and mental toll on people when left untreated, and can even be fatal, yet screening and treatment for eating disorders is out of reach for many people in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Mikhail stressed that affordable and accessible treatment options are needed for people who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that clinicians and researchers need to ensure that they are conducting outreach to disadvantaged communities.

Click here to read this story on the College of Social Science website.

Find Mikhail's study here, and the MSU twin registry here.