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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 00:10 GMT
Abuse 'triggers eating disorders'
Image of a person eating
Eating disorders often developed after childhood sex abuse
Childhood sex abuse increases the risk of women developing eating disorders - and can even impact on their children, a study says.

Researchers found girls abused before the age of 16 were twice as likely to develop eating disorders later in life.

The University of Bristol team also said these women were likely to have weight concerns while pregnant and that had a knock-on effect on the child.

The findings were published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The team studied 10,000 women - one in five of whom had being abused.

Researchers involved in the university's Children of the 90s project found 79% of the women recalled happy childhoods.

We have known for some time that sexual abuse can lead to eating disorders
Eating Disorders Association

The report said these women were less likely to worry about their weight or develop conditions such as bulimia and anorexia later in life.

But of those who were sexually abused, 15% showed symptoms of an eating disorder and 30% showed concern about their weight during pregnancy.

The researchers said this was a cause for concern, as maternal eating problems after childbirth interfered with parenting and child growth.

Women with excessive fears about weight and shape are less likely to breast feed.

But the report accepted other distressful experiences during childhood could also trigger problems.

Previous research has shown that eating disorders may be connected to a wide range of unhappy childhood influences including parental alcohol misuse, physical or emotional cruelty and other family problems.


Lead author Dr Rob Senior said health professionals needed to be aware of the pattern.

"The majority of women with concerns about weight, shape and eating do not describe a history of abuse, and GPs or midwives may have reservations about raising the topic."

He said the high-prevalence of concern during pregnancy was particularly worrying because of the knock-on effects.

A spokesman for the Eating Disorders Association said the findings were not surprising and should be viewed in context.

"We have known for some time that sexual abuse can lead to eating disorders.

"But it is not the only, nor most common, cause. Being teased and bullied about your weight is more likely to cause a problem.

"What is interesting about people who develop disorders after abuse is that it is a defence mechanism; they do it so they don't draw attention to themselves.

"They do not care about how they look, whereas others generally do it because they are worried about how they look."

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