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Study shows eating disorders among BYU women lower than national average

When scholars look at risk levels for developing an eating disorder, all of the data points to academically accomplished, religious Caucasian women as being particularly high risk. But one BYU professor has found that women who study at BYU, although generally fitting this high-risk profile, have significantly lower risk levels for developing an eating disorder than traditional college-age women at other universities.

In a study published in the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists' publication, Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy, BYU Counseling Psychology and Special Education Associate Professor Lane Fischer wrote about the findings that body shape dissatisfaction levels among female BYU students were found to be similar to those of traditional college-age women at other universities, but their risk for developing an eating disorder was significantly lower.

Working in the McKay School of Education, Fischer and his team randomly selected 1,800 incoming BYU freshman women, each year for three years, to fill out two nationally recognized questionnaires: The Eating Attitudes Test, which measures risk levels for developing an eating disorder, and the Body Shape Questionnaire, which reports body shape dissatisfaction. These tests were administered twice a year for four years to estimate risk levels as the group matured academically. 

The results of the study showed that BYU women enter college at their highest levels of eating disorder risk and then steadily decline during their time on campus. On average, freshman women displayed a 12.1 percent level of risk for eating disorders, which declined to 6 percent by the time they were juniors, then increased to 7.8 percent by their senior year. Overall risk rates across all years were 9-10 percent, which is significantly lower than the 14-17 percent risk rates on other college campuses. Although 33.5 percent of freshman women were unhappy about their body image, this percentage decreased as the women stayed at BYU, dropping to 21 percent by their senior year.

“Frankly, we were really surprised when we saw the results,” said Fischer, the primary author of the study. “This research shows that BYU is neither a breeding ground nor a hotbed for developing eating disorders.”

Previous academic studies have shown that upper middle class Caucasian women who are religious and who emphasize academic achievement, competition and attractiveness in their lives are at particularly high risk for developing eating disorders.

“BYU has all the markers of an academic environment that tends to show higher risk of eating disorders,” Fischer said. Thus BYU’s lower-than-average numbers may leave readers puzzled.

Fischer speculates that BYU’s environment may contribute to the lower risk levels. The onset of an eating disorder often correlates with leaving one’s family and prior social support system when going off to college. But BYU students are assigned to a geographic congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This congregation includes an extensive social support system including their bishop, home teachers, visiting teachers, and home evening groups, along with opportunities to serve and recreate with other members of the group.

BYU provides its students with further support through the Women’s Services and Resources program. This program maintains an ongoing campaign, Recapturing Beauty, that focuses on clinical consultations and health workshops to educate BYU women on aspects of healthy eating and dangers of eating disorders.

Another factor that may affect the lower levels of risk is that most women who attend BYU are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion which teaches that physical bodies are sacred and advocates a set of health-related commandments called the Word of Wisdom.

While these assumptions are unverified, Fischer is currently working on a qualitative study that will more appropriately answer why BYU women differ from the rest of the country in regards to eating disorders.

Coauthors for the study were  Jacob Fischer, LaNae Valentine, Erin Winters, Joy Wiechmann, Karen Gochnour, Kristina Hansen and Maren Kanekoa.  To view the published study, please see Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy, Vol. 35, 2013, of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists.

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