In adults, low-weight restrictive eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa (AN), are marked by chronicity and diagnostic crossover from restricting to binge-eating/purging. Less is known about the naturalistic course of these eating disorders in adolescents, particularly atypical AN (atyp-AN) and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). To inform nosology of low-weight restrictive eating disorders in adolescents, we examined outcomes including persistence, crossover, and recovery in an 18-month observational study.
We assessed 82 women (ages 10–23 years) with low-weight eating disorders including AN (n = 40; 29 restricting, 11 binge-eating/purging), atyp-AN (n = 26; 19 restricting, seven binge-eating/purging), and ARFID (n = 16) at baseline, nine months (9 M; 75% retention), and 18 months (18 M; 73% retention) via semi-structured interviews. First-order Markov modeling was used to determine diagnostic persistence, crossover, and recovery occurring at 9 M or 18 M.
Among all diagnoses, the likelihood of remaining stable within a given diagnosis was greater than that of transitioning, with the greatest probability among ARFID (0.84) and AN-R (0.62). Persistence of BP and atypical presentations at follow-up periods was less stable (AN-BP probability 0.40; atyp-AN-R probability 0.48; atyp-AN-BP probability, 0.50). Crossover from binge-eating/purging to restricting occurred 72% of the time; crossover from restricting to binge-eating/purging occurred 23% of the time. The likelihood of stable recovery (e.g., recovery at both 9 M and 18 M) was between 0.00 and 0.36.
Across groups, intake diagnosis persisted in about two-thirds, and recovery was infrequent, underscoring the urgent need for innovative treatment approaches to these illnesses. Frequent crossover between AN and atyp-AN supports continuity between typical and atypical presentations, whereas no crossover to ARFID supports its distinction.