Junkfood Science: It’s called cognitive disconnect

April 29, 2008

It’s called cognitive disconnect

Self Magazine recently released the results of an online survey of women’s eating habits and how they felt about their bodies. It reported that 65% of women in America have disordered eating, and another 10% have full-blown eating disorders. In other words, only 1 in 4 women surveyed have some semblance of a normal, healthy relationship with food. Given our culture’s obsession with diet, exercise and body weight, these findings may not be all that surprising, but the more troubling story isn’t in this survey, but what has followed it.

The survey was conducted in partnership with eating disorder professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a press release, they said that many of the eating habits that women think are normal — such as calorie counting, banishing carbohydrates and ‘unhealthy’ foods, and skipping meals trying to lose weight — can actually be symptoms of disordered eating.

A total of 4,023 women, ages 25-45, responded to the online survey and two-thirds were trying to lose weight, although more than half of the dieters were “at a healthy weight,” said the researchers. Among the other findings they reported, 37% of the women said they regularly skipped meals to lose weight, more than a quarter would be extremely upset if they gained just five pounds and an equal number cut out entire food groups to control their weight. One in six women had dieted by eating 1,000 calories a day or fewer and 13% smoke to control their weight. The researchers reported that 39% of women said concerns about what they eat or weigh interfere with their happiness. The women in their survey also felt extremely guilty if they “indulged” in something “bad” for them.

The degree of unhealthy purging activities among the women, said the professors, was most surprising. More than 31% of the women reported having induced vomiting or taken laxatives, diuretics or diet pills at some point in their lives. “Among these women, more than 50 percent engaged in purging activities at least a few times a week and many did so every day.” Most unsettling, they found just as much disordered eating among the women in their 30s and 40s as in the younger women.

Magazine readers

Are eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors this prevalent among all American women? Or, are women who would choose to participate in an online survey through a woman’s magazine devoted to body perfection, be more likely to already be obsessed with their bodies and diets? Selection bias might lead us to dismiss these findings, especially since we have no information on how the women were recruited and if the poll accurately represents a cross-section of American women. But, what has happened since these results were released, provides more revealing insights into the millions of women who are drawn to these checkout-stand magazines.

Self Magazine, a woman’s magazine specializing in fitness, health, beauty and nutrition, has posted a version of the survey on its website for its readers. Going directly to it (you have to take the quiz) to learn how Self Magazine readers are answering each question reveals that:

· One quarter say they weigh themselves every day, with another 8% weighing themselves two or more times a day.

· An incredible 97.6% say they would be upset if they gained 5 pounds — one third of all the respondents say they’d be moderately upset and 44.1% would be extremely upset.

· For 73% of readers, weight or their bodies play a major role in their lives and how they feel about themselves — nearly 20% feel that their weight and body is the most important thing that affects how they feel about themselves, with another 55% say it plays a significant part.

· More than half of the readers have spent half or all of their time since age 18 dieting. Only 20.76% hardly ever or never diet.

· Unhealthy, unnatural relationships with food, and food fears, are most revealed in the behaviors they admit to having engaged in specifically to control their weight: nearly two-thirds say they have “counted the calories of nearly every single food that went into their mouth,” 44% eliminated entire food groups (namely carbs or red meat), 61% limited the variety of foods they ate, and more than 45% ate less than 1,200 calories/day.

· Nearly 40% follow rigid food rules, such as never allowing themselves to eat dessert.

· And a full 20% are obsessed with thoughts about controlling their food and admit to thinking about food all of the time or several times each hour.

· Unhealthy efforts to control their weight also include: 56% who have skipped meals 44% who have smoked to lose weight

· Bulimic behaviors and efforts to purge calories are seen among more than 22% who admit they have made themselves vomit and two-thirds who have used diet pills or diuretics, another 21% say they’ve used laxatives, and one-third exercise excessively.

Self readers admit to even more disordered eating to control their weight and more concerns focused on their bodies than the UNC survey. Are they attracted to magazines focused on health, beauty, fitness and healthy eating, or might women’s magazines such as these be giving messages that reinforce disordered eating, food fears and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors?

“Healthy eating”

The special feature on disordered eating, “Alarming eating habits,” is highlighted on the magazine's homepage. The sidebar links to an exercise video and stories on Self’s Jump Start Diet, Self’s Diet Club, how to eat healthfully without depriving yourself, and “Get the Facts...to shed pounds...healthy eating ideas, tips for boosting your metabolism, and the skinny on the latest diet buzz in the media.”

The feature story itself links to “Walk your way slim.” It explains how to “supercharge” their steps and add a few smart strength moves to “burn fat, tone muscle and peel off pounds, all in only 30 minutes.” It promises it’s “the easiest shape-up ever!”

The other link on the disordered eating feature is an article entitled, “Healthy eating made simple.” It asks readers if they “want to automatically cut calories and shed pounds?” Citing that restaurant meals are “bad news for your body” because they’re 60% more calories than meals you can cook at home, it offers an “easy-to-stick-to eating plan,” for “healthy meals” with results that include “a slimmer body and extra energy.”

Their article on ‘healthy eating’ goes on to tell readers that dieting can leave them feeling deprived, and that they should budget about 200 calories a day for “forbidden foods” or save up splurge calories for a few days and “blow them all” on a piece of cake. “To keep daily indulgences under control,” they are advised to buy individual servings and stock up on only one type of treat at a time. By limiting variety, it says, they’ll be less tempted to overindulge with abandon. Those 300-calorie frozen entrees are “the fastest way to eat healthfully,” with a glass of skim milk and broccoli. It says the fresh fruits and vegetables are the “stars of any healthy diet” because they’re full of fiber, vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidants. And cooking at home is important, it says, because you can “automatically cut fat, salt and sugar.”

And, we wonder why so many women have such disordered ideas about “healthy eating”? This is dieting, not normal eating — even as they might believe they are eating “healthy” by restricting fats, meat, sugar and calories. And is it little wonder than thin is widely equated as being a “healthy weight”?

Coincidentally, this survey came out the same day I was stuck in a waiting room with only a rack of women’s magazines and was stunned to see the degree of anorectic models on every page. Thin and fit is becoming thinner with each passing year, with unhealthfully low levels of body fat for grown women. Among a dozen magazines, I found only one image of a normal looking woman. Cover blurbs were all about thin perfect bodies, dieting, burning calories and getting “healthy.” Should it be surprising that 97.6% of women who read these say that a mere 5 pounds would be upsetting to them, that so many women feel fat, and 3 out of 4 think their body weight is the defining factor in how they feel about themselves?

But it goes beyond the images. Disordered eating concerns go both ways. Going back to the Self survey, any woman who admits to ever having eaten something because it tasted good, to soothe stress, or even celebrate a happy event — when their bodies weren’t hungry and didn’t need the calories — was marked off as having disordered eating. The eating disorder professor said such women were “food addicts,” according to MSNBC.

Women who complete the online survey are given a report on their risk for disordered eating. Those who complete it exhibiting normal, healthy eating and relationships with food and their bodies [“weight or body shape is not at all important or plays a small part in how I feel about myself”] and answer “no” to any disordered behaviors are congratulated. They are then told to “continue to focus on the happy dividends of a healthy lifestyle and you’ll have the energy you need...Make eating nutritiously even more enjoyable with ...” — and they are linked to the article on “healthy eating” and the magazine’s “light, delicious recipes.” So, women who just said they weren’t obsessed with their diet and bodies are encouraged to be.

Self Magazine's editor-in-chief said in a press statement that its investigation will help their 5.8 million readers evaluate their own eating habits and if they would be considered disordered. “Recognizing what’s normal and what’s dangerous is the first step all women can take in developing a more positive body image and healthier approach to food.”

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