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Eating Disorders and Depression - 2002-01-26

Eating Disorders may be linked to depression. Dr. Suzanne Mazzeo, Associate Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, studied more than 800 female college students who had eating disorders. She tells VOA's Penelope Poulou that most of these women were depressed and that the main cause of their depression was emotional or physical abuse.

Poulou: "Dr. Mazzeo, what are eating disorders?"
Mazzeo: "Typically they fall into three major groups: One is Anorexia Nervosa which many people are familiar with and that involves, one of the primary symptoms, that is, losing about 15% of one's body weight. They have a lot of physical and health consequences. But, it also has a lot of accompanying psychological symptoms like low self-worth and being really preoccupied with body-weight. Bulimia Nervosa is also relatively well known. It does not involve the weight loss as much. People with Bulimia can be of normal weight but it involves binging and then doing (following) some kind of behavior to get rid of the calories such as vomiting or excessive exercise or laxative abuse. And then Binge Eating Disorder (is an eating disorder that) is more recently defined. (It) involves the binging and the psychological components but does not include vomiting or finding other ways to get rid of the food."
Poulou: "You dealt with eating disorders in association with depression."
Mazzeo: "What we found was (that) the more depressed people were, the more likely they were to have problems with eating and weight and to feel bad about their bodies."
Poulou: "How did you come to the conclusion that what you were looking at was depression?"
Mazzeo: "We were studying a large sample of students, it was over 800. The more symptoms of depression that people reported, the more likely they were to have eating problems.(They were experiencing) things like having trouble sleeping, not having a lot of energy, feeling down about (themselves). Those were the symptoms. One thing that makes this study different from some other studies is that we didn't just look at depression and disordered eating. We looked at several variables and how they all interacted and possibly led to disordered eating."
Poulou:" What were these variables?"
Mazzeo: "Things like: How close did you feel with your family when you were growing up? Was there a lot of conflict in your family during those years? Did you suffer from physical or emotional abuse? And do you have difficulty identifying and talking about your emotions?"
Poulou: "What was the percentage of the people you studied that answered 'yes' to your questions?"
Mazzeo:"Two thirds of our sample said that they were emotionally abused. Physical abuse was a lot less common. It was about thirty percent. We (also) found that it wasn't just abuse that predicted disordered eating. Maybe if people were abused but they had good social support from their family, or if they were abused and they were able to talk to someone about their emotions, they were not as likely to have eating problems. (Such support doesn't have to come from a family member) If you have a supportive teacher or some kind of mentor that can make a big difference in avoiding negative outcomes."
Poulou:"So, these people may be having difficulty expressing feelings. And a good support system may help them unlock this expressiveness and help them deal with themselves better."
Mazzeo: "Right."
Poulou: "Would you classify (these patients) as introverted women?"
Mazzeo: "It's more than just being introverted. You might be very social, but cut off from your emotional life. Some people have said that this emotional cut off is the result of trauma. Some other people have suggested it's genetic. Some people are just more emotionally in touch with themselves than others. We are not really sure where this emotional cut-off comes from yet."

Psychologist Suzanne Mazzeo is an Associate Professor of Virginia Commonwealth University.