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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teaching teenagers about eating disorders can make them more knowledgeable about the problem, but it may also have some inadvertent effects, a new study suggests.
Yale University researchers found that when they presented female high school students with videos on eating disorders, it met the intended goal of boosting their knowledge about anorexia and bulimia.
However, the team saw that the students didn't necessarily find the results of eating disorders unappealing. Teens who watched a video featuring a woman recovering from an eating disorder became more likely to view girls with eating disorders as "very pretty," and some thought it would be "nice to look like" the woman in the video.
The findings suggest that more research should go into the unintended effects of eating disorder education before such programs are widely used, the researchers conclude in their article in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
"It seems intuitively appealing to have recovered patients get up in front of high school or college-aged girls and tell the story of their eating disorder and recovery," lead study author Dr. Marlene B. Schwartz told Reuters Health.
However, she explained, there's also the argument that having an attractive, articulate woman talk about her eating disorder could inadvertently "glamorize" the condition.
To investigate the question, Schwartz and her colleagues had 376 female high school students view one of two videos on eating disorders. Both videos were the same, except for the "presenter." In one video, the presenter was a young woman identified as a doctor, who told the story of a typical eating disorder patient; in the other, the woman was a "recovered eating disorder patient" who described her personal experience.
The students completed questionnaires before and after the video.
Overall, the study found, both videos increased the girls' knowledge about anorexia and bulimia, but there were some unforeseen results as well. Regardless of which video they saw, the girls were more likely to say afterward that "it's not that hard" to recover from an eating disorder. They were also more likely to believe girls with eating disorders have "strong" personalities.
Girls who viewed the video featuring the eating disorder patient were particularly likely to see women with anorexia or bulimia in a positive light.
"Depending on your point of view, that may or may not be a good thing," Schwartz said. It can be positive if it minimizes the stigma of eating disorders, she and her colleagues note, or negative if it glamorizes the problem.
Schwartz said she recommends that schools address eating disorders by promoting healthy eating, exercise and positive body image, and discouraging "weight bias" and teasing based on physical appearance.
"The best way for schools to help prevent eating disorders is to create a nurturing environment that automatically promotes healthy behaviors," she said.
SOURCE: International Journal of Eating Disorders, March 2007.