NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers may be at higher risk of binge-eating and purging than their heterosexual peers, starting as early as age 12, a new study finds.
Past research has found connections between sexual orientation and the risk of eating disorders in adults -- showing, for instance, that gay men have higher rates of symptoms than their heterosexual counterparts.
Less has been known about how sexual orientation affects teenagers' risks of various eating disorders.
For the new study, researchers at Harvard University and Children's Hospital Boston used data from a U.S. survey of nearly 14,000 12- to 23-year-olds to look at the relationship between sexual orientation and binge-eating and purging.
They found heightened rates of binge-eating among both males and females who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or "mostly heterosexual."
Purging, by vomiting or abusing laxatives, was also more common among these teens, the researchers report in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"We found clear and concerning signs of higher rates of eating disorder symptoms in sexual-minority youth compared to their heterosexual peers even at ages as young as 12, 13 or 14 years old," lead researcher S. Bryn Austin, an assistant professor of pediatrics, told Reuters Health in an email.
Among females, lesbian, bisexual and mostly heterosexual respondents were all about twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to report binge-eating at least once per month in the past year.
Bisexual and mostly heterosexual girls and women were also more likely to say they had purged in the past year in order to control their weight.
Among males, the highest risks were seen among homosexuals -- who were seven times more likely to report bingeing and nearly 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males.
Bisexual and mostly heterosexual boys and men also had elevated risks of both problems -- with rates anywhere from three to seven times higher than those of their heterosexual counterparts.
The survey data do not offer a potential reason for the findings, but past studies give some insight, according to the researchers.
"We know that gay, lesbian, and other sexual-minority kids are often under a lot of pressure," Austin said, noting that these teens are often "treated like outsiders" in their own families and schools, and may be excluded, harassed or victimized by bullies.
"This kind of isolation and victimization can take its toll on a young person," Austin explained, "and one of ways it can play out is in vulnerability to eating-disorder symptoms and a host of other stress-related health problems."
She added that because negative attitudes and discrimination against sexual minorities are still pervasive in society, families need to be a source of support.
It is "incredibly important," Austin said, "for parents and other family members to reach out and make sure these youth know they are loved and supported, that they can count on their families to stay by their side."
SOURCE: Journal of Adolescent Health, September 2009.