Women with apple-shaped bodies might be at a greater risk for developing an eating disorder, according to a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Researchers have long known that people with apple-shaped bodies tend to have higher risks for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, but this is the first study to look at how having more belly fat might influence problem eating.
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After recruiting nearly 300 young women, researchers from Drexel University recorded changes in participants' body mass index (BMI), total body fat percentage, and body composition (which measures where they carry fat) over a two-year period. They also measured various aspects of their mental health and eating habits: how they felt about their bodies and how often they experienced "loss-of-control" eating, which has been linked to various eating disorders, including binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and certain subtypes of anorexia.
In the end, they found that each one-point increase in percentage of abdominal fat was associated with a 53% increase in risk for feeling out-of-control while eating. Interestingly, percentage of total body fat didn't have any affect. Apple-shaped women also tended to feel "more dissatisfied with their body regardless of how much they weighed," lead study author Laura Berner, PhD, tells Health.
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You might assume that because the apple-shaped women were also more likely to feel bad about their bodies, that would explain the link to food problems, but Berner suspects that there could be an underlying biological reason as well. Belly fat is "biologically active"—meaning it doesn't just sit there like other types of fat, she explains. It actually emits hormones that can affect your appetite, possibly setting you up for binge-eating in the first place.
Berner hopes that understanding the link between belly fat, body image, and "loss-of-control" eating might help take away some of the shame associated with these disorders, and ultimately help those struggling get treatment faster.