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Study: Harmful Weight-Loss Behavior More Common in Teens With Disabilities

A study examining weight and physical activity in adolescents found that teenagers with disabilities are more likely than their typically developing peers to be obese, and also more likely to engage in harmful activities intended to drop that weight, such as using laxatives and vomiting, taking diet pills, or fasting.

The findings were presented at the Nov. 17 meeting of the American Public Health Association. The lead researcher was Mia Papas, an assistant professor of behavioral health and nutrition at the University of Delaware in Newark.

To draw her conclusions, Papas examined questionnaires that were given to nearly 10,000 adolescents in Delaware, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Rhode Island as part of the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, asks students about a variety of risk behaviors.

Twenty percent of the teens that Papas studied reported having a learning, physical, or emotional disability, and of those teens, 16 percent reported being obese, compared to 10 percent of the teens who did not report a disability. 

The teens with disabilities reported lower levels of physical activity than the typically developing group: 20 percent said they had spent no time in the past week doing physical activity, compared to 13 percent of typically developing peers. Thirty-eight percent of teens with disabilities said they had engaged in sustained physical activity for more than five days in the past week, compared to 52 percent of students without disabilities. 

But the disparities in harmful weight-loss behaviors were particularly striking, Papas said in an interview with Medscape Medical News, a health news website. While 3 percent of typically developing adolescents reported taking laxatives or vomiting in an attempt to lose weight, 12 percent of teens with disabilities said they had done so. Four percent of teens without disabilities said they had used diet pills, powders, or liquids, while 11 percent of teens with disabilities had done so. And 9 percent of typically developing teens said they had fasted to lose weight the previous day, while 20 percent of adolescents with disabilities reported that behavior. 

"This was surprising," Papas told Medscape. "We didn't think we would see a difference this large." Teens with disabilities should be a specific focus of programs aimed at imparting healthy weight-control skills, she said in the interview.

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