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Fitness Magazines and Eating Disorders: Is There a Relationship?

In their survey of 498 sophomores, juniors and seniors, the researchers asked the girls how often they read health and fitness magazines; whether, in the previous year, they used laxatives, diet pills, made themselves throw up, or limited their caloric intake to under 1,200 calories per day. They also administered the Mizes Anorectic Cognitions Scale, a 33-item test measuring the prevalence of anorexic thinking patterns.

The research team found evidence of unhealthy weight-control practices among the girls.

  • About 11 percent of them admitted using laxatives for weight loss or weight control
  • 15 percent said they had taken appetite control or weight-loss pills
  • 9 percent said they had made themselves vomit
  • 52 percent indicated they had restricted their calories to 1,200 a day or less.

In correlating the health and fitness magazine reading habits with the above characteristics Thomsen et al. found:

  • Almost 80 percent of the girls who made themselves vomit were frequent readers of health and fitness magazines
  • Of those who used appetite suppressants or weight-control pills, about 73 percent were frequent readers of these magazines
  • About 60 percent of the girls who had used laxatives in the past year were also frequent readers of these magazines
  • Among frequent readers, those who restricted their calories to under 1,200 a day outnumbered nearly two to one those who did not

With these numbers in hand, the researchers concluded there were moderate to strong links between those unhealthy practices and the reading of health and fitness magazines in their study.

On the test for anorexic tendencies, the average score of the 46 percent of the girls who read the magazines at least once a month was significantly higher than the average scores of the girls who read the magazines moderately or infrequently. About seven percent of the overall sample scored in the same range in which clinically diagnosed anorexics typically register.

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Thomsen said although they found a correlation between eating habits and reading material, it doesn’t mean one causes the other. However, he said frequently reading health and fitness magazines could indicate that a young woman is proceeding on a path toward anorexic thinking patterns. “What’s not known is whether it is that thinking that prompts her to read the magazines or whether the magazines prompt that thinking,” said Thomsen.

Thomsen said parents shouldn’t panic if they find their daughter reading a health and fitness magazine, but try to understand her motivations. “If it leads to some kind of obsessive behavior regarding exercise and weight control, then I would be concerned. She may be getting a skewed perception of what women ought to be and what women ought to look like.”

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Parents Often In the Dark About Problem

People are often in the dark about their child’s eating disorder, because she or he—yes, males can have them also—will go to great lengths to conceal it. In Adelaide University in Australia, doctoral candidate Megan Warin has spent the past three years researching the day-to-day social effects anorexia has on 46 women and men in Australia, Canada and Scotland.

“Many of the practices surrounding anorexia (such as purging) are shameful and done in private and secrecy, and people did not want others to know so would go to great lengths to hide the fact that they were doing these things,” said Warin.

Warin said many of the people she interviewed talked about feeling alienated, or out of place in their families. “Nearly all refused to eat with others, and they often refused to engage in social activities, especially with families,” she said.

Warin found that people often limit their socialization to others with similar problems—often while seeking treatment. “When people came together in treatment settings, they talked to each other about their practices of weight loss and swapped information and ideas. They also shared tips on how to hide food from the doctors and nurses.”

Thomsen has three suggestions to minimize the possibility of eating disorders:

  • Put pressure on the media to use models and actresses who look like everybody else.
  • Parents need to do a better job of helping their children understand that the thin models and actresses are not the norm.
  • People should help others feel good about themselves so that won’t feel they need to starve themselves in order to gain self-esteem.

Last reviewed:
On 13 Feb 2006
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Fitness Magazines and Eating Disorders: Is There a Relationship?

Mike Fillon

APA Reference
Fillon, M. (2020). Fitness Magazines and Eating Disorders: Is There a Relationship?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.