That's the conclusion of a study by Spanish researchers that appears in the February issue of Pediatrics.
Curiously, spending extra time in front of the television was not a risk factor, the study found.
The researchers looked at more than 2,500 Spanish girls between the ages of 12 and 21 who were initially free of eating disorders. During the course of an 18-month follow-up, the investigators found 90 new cases of eating disorders, more than 80 percent of which seemed closer to bulimia than anorexia.
Eating meals alone translated into a three times greater risk for developing an eating disorder. Girls who read teen magazines and listened to lots of radio were at double the risk. So were girls whose parents were widowed, separated or divorced, according to the study, which was led by Dr. Miguel A. Martinez-Gonzalez, of the University of Navarra, Pamplona.
Anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders affect primarily girls and young women in Western countries. People with anorexia tend to starve themselves, while those with bulimia often fall into a pattern of binge eating, followed by vomiting or excessive use of laxatives.
In explaining the study's findings, Martinez-Gonzalez says the low self-esteem that could result from a single-parent home environment might help explain the onset of an eating disorder. Also, single-parent families may not have the resources to teach their children about food and eating. In these situations, the children may also eat alone more often simply by necessity, the researchers say.
As for the teen magazines and radio, the researchers say mass media's infatuation with unrealistically thin ideals have been shown to contribute to eating disorders.
Dr. Ira Sacker, director of the HEED (Help End Eating Disorders) Foundation and author of Dying To Be Thin, calls the new research "a very valuable report. I think this is the largest population that I've ever seen of 12- to 21-year-olds."
He says the most surprising revelation was the one regarding solitary eating. "We haven't even really looked at that before," Sacker says. "Solitary eating points to isolation, and that is one of the early signs of an eating disorder."
"The individual who retreats winds up not wanting to eat with anyone else," Sacker adds. "Eating is not something social; it becomes a control factor. You've got loneliness, separation and issues of abandonment and isolation."
Martinez-Gonzalez says the real effect, however, may be a cumulative one.
"We think that the conjunction of predisposing factors leading to a weak personality in a girl -- high neuroticism, low self-esteem, troubled family atmosphere because parents are divorced/separated -- plus environmental messages from mass media act together to induce eating disorders," Martinez-Gonzalez says.
It's not clear why television did not factor more into the results, he says.
"One reason may be that we have only analyzed the total time spent watching TV. But the 'quality' or 'content' of the TV shows that a girl watches could be more important than the quantity or total amount of time spent watching TV," he adds.
Martinez-Gonzalez says he has another article, this one dealing with neuroticism and low self-esteem and their connection to eating disorders, appearing in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
In a related study, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University say they've found a link between a tendency toward perfectionism in women and the likelihood of developing anorexia or bulimia. The researchers hope the finding may be another clue in the quest to discover a genetically influenced trait that predisposes a person to developing an eating disorder.
Their study appears in the February issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.