Once well-established, such disorders can seriously harm the victims’ health, and in extreme cases may be fatal. Since eating disorders are difficult to treat, researchers look for clues to help predict which girls are most likely to develop them.

In the Nov. 11 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Dr. Alison E. Field of the Harvard Medical School and colleagues report on a study designed to clarify which factors seem to signal an increased probability for young girls to engage in behaviors — such as dieting and purging to lose weight — that may dispose them to develop eating disorders.

The researchers surveyed the stage of physical maturation, and the food and body image-related attitudes and behaviors of nearly 7,000 girls between the ages of 9 and 14 years in 1996 and again one year later. During the year between surveys, 74 girls, or about 1 percent of those surveyed began using vomiting or laxatives to control their weight.

The investigators reported that body weight was a common concern among these girls; 29 percent had dieted to lose weight during the year between surveys, 6 percent reported making considerable effort to look like women seen in the popular media, and 6 percent said they changed their eating habits around peers. Girls who were more physically mature were more likely to use extreme measures (vomiting or laxatives) to control weight.

Factors that were significant predictors of a girl’s beginning to use extreme measures to control weight included a concern with weight and shape, the importance of thinness to peers, changing eating patterns when with peers and trying to look like females on TV, in movies or in magazines.

The researchers noted that “Identifying risk factors for eating disorders and their precursors is essential for the development of effective prevention programs.”

In addition, they recommended that the media not over-emphasize thinness by using primarily models who are excessively thin.

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