The Dimensional Nature of Eating Pathology: Evidence From a Direct Comparison of Categorical, Dimensional, and Hybrid Models

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Eating disorders are conceptualized as categorical rather than dimensional in the current major diagnostic system (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; 5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and in many previous studies. However, previous research has not critically evaluated this assumption or tested hybrid models (e.g., modeling latent variables with both dimensional and categorical features). Accordingly, the current study directly compared categorical, dimensional, and hybrid models for eating pathology in a large, population-based sample. Participants included 3,032 female and male twins (ages 9–30 years) from the Michigan State University Twin Registry. The Minnesota Eating Behaviors Survey was used to assess disordered eating symptoms including body dissatisfaction, weight preoccupation, binge eating, and compensatory behaviors. Results showed that dimensional models best fit the data in the overall sample as well as across subgroups divided by sex and pubertal status (e.g., prepubertal vs. postpubertal). It is interesting to note that the results favored more categorical models when using a case-control subset of our sample with participants who either endorsed substantial eating pathology or no/little eating pathology. Overall, findings provide support for a dimensional conceptualization of eating pathology and underscore the importance of using community samples to capture the full range of severity of eating pathology when investigating questions about taxonomy.

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