Diet of gossip magazines linked to teenage eating disorders

© Dreamstime Agency | Dreamstime.com20 February 2012

By Carolyn Allen

Teenagers who read gossip magazines are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviours such as binge eating, skipping meals or making themselves sick after meals, according to an ESRC-funded study.

These unhealthy eating behaviours can lead to serious eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, which are a growing public health problem in the UK. Beat, the charity behind Eating Disorders Awareness Week, says that the most accurate statistics available suggest that 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, but that the figure could be much higher.

The study, the first to identify an association between media exposure and changes in eating behaviour in teenagers, was led by Dr James White, a research associate at DECIPHer (Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement).

The researchers asked over 500 youngsters from South Wales aged between 11 and 16 to record their eating patterns – including whether they were skipping meals, making themselves sick after eating, or binge eating. Six months later, the teenagers were asked for the same information so that the researchers could identify any changes in eating patterns.

The youngsters were also asked what types of television programmes they regularly watched and how often they looked at magazines about women's fashion, health and fitness, men's issues and gossip.

The results showed that adolescents – both boys and girls - who had looked at gossip magazines most often during the study, were also most likely to report worrying changes in eating behaviours. In contrast, exposure to television or to other types of magazines appeared to have no effect.

Even after taking into account other risk factors for eating disorders, such as body mass index and the amount of pressure that the teenagers felt they were under from the media to lose weight, gossip magazines remained a significant influence.

Previous research has shown that exposure to unrealistic ideals such as super-thin models increases the risk of people feeling dissatisfied with what they look like - one of the strongest factors associated with eating disorders. This has led to calls from organisations such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists for fashion magazines to feature more average-sized models and for warning symbols on digitally altered photographs.

But this study goes a step further by looking directly at changes in eating behaviour, and it shows that the type of images found in gossip magazines may have a greater impact on teenage boys and girls.

And, as the researchers found no link between the media pressure that teenagers perceived and the changes in eating behaviour, the teenagers appear to be unaware that they are being influenced in this way.

"What distinguishes gossip magazines is the way they ridicule celebrities who are overweight or even just don't conform to unrealistic ideals," said Dr White. "And at the same time they praise celebrities for losing weight. That combination of messages of 'fat is bad', 'thin is good' seems to be a particularly potent influence on vulnerable teenagers."

"This study suggests that there should be greater awareness of the potential impact that exposure to the kind of images of celebrities and models in gossip magazines can have on adolescents' eating habits."

Eating Disorders Awareness Week runs from Monday 20 February to Sunday 26 February.