Adolescent girls who engage in heightened levels of repetitive negative thinking are more likely to engage in disordered eating habits, according to new research published in the scientific journal Eating Behaviors. The findings provide preliminary evidence that targeting repetitive negative thinking in adolescence may decrease binge eating behavior.
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that often start in adolescence, and I wanted to examine risk factors for eating disorders during this critical period. Repetitive negative thinking, the uncontrollable and repetitive processing of thoughts, has been shown to increase eating disorder psychopathology broadly,” said Valerie Wong of Drexel University, the corresponding author of the new study.
“However, eating disorder behaviors can present very differently (e.g., eating too little or too much food). I was interested in how repetitive negative thinking might differentially relate to these divergent eating behaviors (i.e., restrictive vs. binge eating) and interact with other risk factors for eating disorders such as perfectionism and social appearance anxiety. Understanding how repetitive negative thinking and other risk factors relate to the development of eating disorder behaviors in adolescent girls is imperative for the early identification and prevention of eating disorders.”
In the study, 332 female high school students completed assessments of eating disorder symptoms, repetitive thinking, social appearance anxiety, and perfectionism.
In line with previous research, Wong and her colleagues found that social appearance anxiety and perfectionism were related to both fasting and binge eating. After accounting for the effects of these two variables, the researchers also found that repetitive thinking was independently associated with binge eating, but not fasting.
In other words, students who agreed with statements such as “Once I start thinking about [distressing situations], I can’t stop” and “I have thoughts or images that are difficult to forget” were more likely to indicate that they had eaten what other people would regard as an unusually large amount of food and had made themselves vomit or taken laxatives as a means of controlling their shape or weight.
“Our results suggest that repetitive negative thinking may be more related to binge eating than restrictive eating,” Wong told PsyPost. “Further, individuals with high levels of perfectionism, social appearance anxiety, and repetitive negative thinking may be more at risk for engaging in a variety of eating disorder behaviors. Identifying and targeting these risk factors may better prevent the onset of eating disorders.”
But future research is necessary to understand the causal relationships between repetitive thinking, social appearance anxiety, perfectionism, and eating disorders.
“Because our analyses were cross-sectional and observational, we were unable to make causal inferences,” Wong explained. “Future studies should test these relationships with prospective data to further determine whether repetitive negative thinking leads to the development of eating disorders.”
The study, “The unique and moderated relationships across repetitive negative thinking and disordered eating behaviors in adolescent girls“, was authored by Valerie Z. Wong, Caroline Christian, and Cheri A. Levinson.