Childhood Maltreatment and Eating Disorders: A Prospective Investigation

Anat Talmon, Cathy Spatz Widom*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Objectives: To determine whether childhood maltreatment is a risk factor for two eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa) using objective and subjective case definitions. Methods: Using a prospective cohorts design, children with documented cases of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect (ages 0–11) from 1967 to 1971 in a Midwestern metropolitan county area were matched on age, race, sex, and approximate family socioeconomic status with non-maltreated children. Both groups were followed up. Retrospective self-reports about childhood maltreatment were collected at age 29. DSM-IV anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN) disorders were assessed at age 41 (N = 807). Logistic and linear regression results are reported. Results: Using documented cases, childhood maltreatment was not a significant risk factor for AN or BN diagnoses or symptoms in adulthood. However, adults who retrospectively reported any maltreatment and physical and sexual abuse reported significantly more symptoms of AN than those who did not. Conclusions: The prediction that childhood maltreatment is a risk factor for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa was partially supported in this longitudinal study. While misattribution of cases might have occurred, these results suggest that researchers and clinicians should use caution in drawing inferences about these relationships and designing interventions.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)88-99
Number of pages12
JournalChild Maltreatment
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was supported in part by grants from NIMH (MH49467 and MH58386), NIJ (86-IJ-CX-0033 and 89-IJ-CX-0007), Eunice Kennedy Shriver NICHD (HD40774), NIDA (DA17842 and DA10060), NIAAA (AA09238 and AA11108), NIA (AG058683), and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Points of view are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the US Department of Justice. Anat Talmon is supported by the Haruv Institute postdoctoral fellowship and by the Israel Science Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • anorexia nervosa
  • bulimia nervosa
  • child abuse and neglect
  • eating disorders
  • longitudinal study
  • retrospective self-reports


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