(Reuters Health) - Women with anorexia nervosa or bulimia are up to four times more likely to be convicted of theft - often petty thefts like shoplifting - compared to peers without eating disorders, according to results from a large Swedish study.
This increased risk of criminality in women with eating disorders is something doctors should pay attention to because convictions could increase a patient’s stress and anxiety, interrupt treatment and hamper recovery, the authors write in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, online August 9.
“The study’s findings confirm and extend what was previously known - that certain personality traits, like impulsivity, and the presence of other psychiatric disorders may confer added risk to a range of other problems, like criminal activity,” said Deborah Glasofer of Columbia University Medical Centre in New York, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“By no means is there evidence that all eating disorders are associated with any one particular behavior profile, but eating disorders are serious illnesses which can impact all aspects of the afflicted individual’s life,” Glasofer told Reuters Health in an email.
For example, Glasofer said, a subset of people who experience frequent binge-eating episodes - within the context of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder - may be driven to obtain large, often expensive, quantities of food on a regular basis and this can lead to financial duress, resulting in possible theft of food items.
“Information regarding the specific types of theft, and the motivation for this behaviour, which individuals with eating disorders were at risk for was beyond the scope of the current investigation, but this stands out as a useful issue for researchers to evaluate in future studies,” Glasofer said.
Shuyang Yao, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and colleagues analyzed data on more than 900,000 Swedish women born between 1979 and 1998. Using health and crime registries, they identified women diagnosed with eating disorders starting at age 15, and those convicted of any crime by age 35.
About 11,000 women were diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and just over 5,000 were diagnosed with bulimia. Among women with anorexia, nearly 12% had a theft conviction by the time they were 35, and 7% had convictions for other crimes.
Among women with bulimia, 18% had theft convictions and 13% had other convictions. In comparison, among women with neither eating disorder, about 5% had been convicted of theft and 6% had convictions for other crimes.
When the researchers accounted for other mental health issues like ADHD or personality disorders among the women with eating disorders, they found those other conditions explained some of the criminal behaviour in women with bulimia, but not in those with anorexia.
The study was not designed to determine whether or how eating disorders might influence criminal behaviour.