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Revista Brasileira de Epidemiologia

Print version ISSN 1415-790X

Rev. bras. epidemiol. vol.11 n.3 São Paulo Sep. 2008 



Test-retest reliability of a simplified questionnaire for screening adolescents with risk behaviours for eating disorders in epidemiologic studies



Julia Elba de Souza Ferreira; Gloria Valeria da Veiga

Instituto de Nutrição Josué de Castro, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro - Av. Brigadeiro Trompowisky, s/nº, Ilha do Fundão, CCS, Bloco J 2º andar

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INTRODUCTION: The number of people presenting abnormal eating behaviors based on the habit of going on strict diets and taking measures to compensate food consumption (use of laxatives, diuretics, and self-induced vomiting) is growing. There is a clear need for simple investigative tools in population-based studies.
OBJECTIVE: Evaluate the reliability of a simplified questionnaire to investigate risk behaviors for eating disorders (ED) among adolescents.
METHODS: The questionnaire had two questions: the second question was subdivided into four other ones, about the frequency of binge eating episodes, the use of laxatives and diuretics, self-induced vomiting and strict dieting. It was applied in two moments (test-retest), with an interval of 15 days between the two assessments, in 195 students (70 % girls) aged from 12 to 19.9 years, from a Niterói, RJ public school. The reliability of the questions was assessed through the weighted Kappa coefficient and their respective 95% confidence intervals (CI) and frequency adjusted kappa.
RESULTS: Frequency-adjusted kappa values for less frequent behaviors were: 0.93 for the use of laxatives, 0.97 for the use of diuretics and 0.92 for self-induced vomiting. For the more frequent risk behaviors for ED such as binge eating episodes and restrictive dieting, weighted Kappa coefficients were 0.50 and 0.61, respectively.
CONCLUSIONS: The reliability of the questionnaire was good, with better results for investigating less frequent behaviors.

Keywords: Eating Disorders, adolescents, questionnaire reliability.




The number of adolescents presenting abnormal eating behaviors is increasing, stimulated by excessive concern over body weight and fear of fat. This phobia leads individuals to strict dieting or inappropriate methods to compensate overeating episodes, such as the use of laxatives and / or diuretics and self-induced vomiting¹.

These behaviors are part of the genesis and maintenance of eating disorders (ED), such as anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED). Depending on the intensity and frequency in which they occur, they are not diagnosed as ED but as non specified eating disorders or symptoms of risk behaviors for ED or abnormal eating behavior and may indicate a risk for the development of ED 2,3,4.

Abnormal eating behaviors have been observed in 15.8% of Italian girls5 and 53.3% of adolescent Latin girls¹, evaluated in the United States, with the habit of going on strict diets.

The epidemiological investigation of ED is scarce, probably on account of the difficulty for establishing a precise diagnosis in a short period of time. The most common form to approach the problem is the application of long and complex questionnaires, as analyzed by Freitas et al.6 in a broad review on the subject.

Individual interviews imply in the need for human resources and available time, which is not always feasible in epidemiological studies. Thus, the investigation of risk behaviors for ED, by means of simplified self-report questionnaires might be an alternative for contributing to the epidemiological investigation of ED. These questionnaires are considered efficient, economical and easy to use for a great number of individuals, besides allowing respondents to reveal a behavior they might be reluctant to mention in a face-to-face interview, for considering it shameful 6.

In 1998, HAY7 used a simplified questionnaire to identify binge eating and inappropriate methods to compensate overeating episodes, in a probabilistic sample of 3,000 Australians, in the 15-94 years age-range. This study has the objective of evaluating the reliability of a simplified questionnaire, adapted from the one proposed by Hay, and used for a sample of adolescent students from a public school in the city of Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.



The present study was carried out with 195 adolescents in the 12-19.9 years age range, students of a state school, in the city of Niterói/RJ, in 2005. It is a convenience sample of all students enrolled in the grades comprised from the 2nd year of the Elementary level (1-8) to the 3rd year of the Intermediate level (1-3), who showed willingness to participate in this research and obtained signed consent of their legal guardians.

The questionnaire was applied in two distinct moments (test - retest) with a 15-day interval between the test application and the retest. For the first application of the questionnaire (test), 240 students were approached. Of these, 45 did not show on the day of the second questionnaire (re-test) application, with a loss of 18.7%. The questionnaire evaluated in this study (Annex) consists of an adaptation of the one used by Hay7 to verify the prevalence of ED in an Australian community. Hay7 based his questionnaire on a long script of the clinical interview known as Eating Disorder Examination - EDE, created by Fairburn8, and considered the "gold standard" for screening ED6. The version of the present study consisted in subdividing the second question of the original questionnaire into four sub-questions, aimed at providing better understanding to students.

The simplified questionnaire has 2 questions. The first question investigates the frequency of binge eating episodes and the second, divided into four inquiries, investigates the frequency of methods to control weight gain, or possible mechanisms to compensate overeating episodes, such as purging (use of laxatives, diuretics and self-induced vomiting) and strict dieting or fasting. For each question, there were four categories of behavior frequency, ranging from no episodes to two or more times a week in the past three months.

The questionnaire was completed by students themselves in the classroom, in the presence of the researcher. When there was a question in any of the items, the researcher read the question to the student, without further explanation, aiming to avoid a differentiated influence in their response.

The anthropometrical evaluation was comprised weight and height. Weight was gauged by means of an electronic scale, with a capacity of up to 150 kg and a 50 g variation, and height was measured using a portable anthropometric measurer, with a 0.1 cm variation. Height was gauged twice, allowing for 0.5 cm maximum variation between the two measures, and the average value remained. The evaluation of the nutritional status was based on the body mass index (BMI= weight / height2), according to the criteria of COLE et al. 9 for the classification of overweight and obesity, and WHO's 10 for classifying underweight.

Data analysis was carried out utilizing PEPI version 3.011 and Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS), version 11.0 software. The Chi-Square test was used to compare frequencies. The reliability of the questions in the questionnaire was evaluated by weighted kappa(wk), using the absolute error as a weighting system, and the frequency adjusted kappa (ak) and their respective 95% confidence intervals. The proportion of concordant and discordant answers was also calculated for each question of the questionnaire12. The criterion proposed by Landis & Koch apud: SILVA & PEREIRA13 was used for interpreting agreement and the p<0.05 value for statistical significance.

The study was approved by the Ethics Committee on Research of the Instituto de Puericultura Martagão Gesteira (IPPMG) of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro - Brazil.



Among the 45 adolescents who did not participate in the second application of the questionnaire (losses), 28 (62.2%) were girls, 26 (57.8%) were 16 years old or above. These proportions did not differ significantly from those observed in the 195 adolescents who participated fully in the study (p value = 0.29 compared in gender and 0.39, in age range). It was possible to assess nutritional status, based on the BMI of 38 of these adolescents and differences were not significant: 89.5% were eutrophic (p = 0.14), 2.6% were underweight (p = 0, 32), 5.3% overweight (p = 0.11), and 2.6% obese (p = 0.64).

Among the adolescents assessed, 29.7% (n= 58) were male and 70.3% (n=137) female; 64.6% (n=126) belonged to the 16-19.9 years age range, and 35.4% (n=69) were younger, between 12-15.9 years old.

Regarding the nutritional status, 14.6% were overweight, 1.6% were obese, and 4.7% underweight. On account of the low prevalence of obesity, the overweight and obese categories were grouped to comprise the "overweight" category, corresponding to 16.2%. There was no significant difference related to gender and age range, with regard to nutritional status (Table 1).



Weighted kappavalues for the questions concerning risk behaviors with low frequency, that is, those in which more than 90% of the group studied reported no episode, when adjusted to frequency, were very high (k=0.93 for the use of laxatives; k=0.97 for the use of diuretics, and k= 0.92 for self-induced vomiting). Whereas in the behaviors that presented a higher frequency, the pondered kappa values corresponded to moderate agreement (k= 0.50) for binge eating, and to a substantial one (k=0.61) for strict dieting (Table 2).



In relation to the proportion of concordant answers between test and retest, 60% of agreement was verified for the question concerning the frequency of binge eating episodes, 94.9% for the use of laxatives, 97.4% for the use of diuretics, 94.3% for self-induced vomiting, and 74.3% for the habit of going on strict diets or fasting.

No significant difference was verified in the weighted kappa values between gender and age range for the most frequent behaviors as binge eating and the habit of going on strict diets, nonetheless there was a tendency toward higher stability in the answers of females and among respondents above 15 years of age, especially toward binge eating (Table 3).




This study evaluated the reliability of a simplified questionnaire to investigate risk behaviors for ED, adapted from another one used in the Australian population7. Evaluating reliability is the first step to know the accuracy of an instrument. One of the ways of evaluating the reliability of self-administered questionnaires is through test - retest. This technique allows researchers to evaluate if similar results are reproduced under the same methodological conditions, but at different moments 12,14.

The results showed that the agreement of the questions related to the most frequent risk behaviors for ED, such as the habit of going on strict diets and / or fasting or binge eating episodes, was moderate. In counterpart, the questions in reference to less frequent behaviors, as the use of laxatives, diuretics, and / or self-induced vomiting presented kappa values, when adjusted for frequency, corresponding to a quasi-perfect agreement. This agreement, however, would be underestimated if weighted kappa test were used, given, in that case, values would be low (lower than 0.50), indicating poor agreement.

The kappa coefficient, simple or weighted, has been widely used and is considered an adequate statistical method for reliability technique studies and tools that generate categorical variables15. However, the limitations of this coefficient for low frequency outcomes have been identified12, 13. The high frequency of answers concentrated in a single category of the variable being evaluated (in the present study "not once", which indicated low frequency of compensatory mechanisms) made the values of the weighted kappa to become close to zero. This would indicate, wrongly, low levels of reproducibility of the tool. The use of frequency-adjusted kappa corrects this and avoids mistaken conclusions about the quality of the tool analyzed12. Indeed, for the variables use of laxatives, use of diuretics and self-induced vomiting, less frequent behaviors among the adolescents studied, the use of kappa statistics adjusted for frequency more than doubled kappa values and underscored the quality of the questionnaires agreement in the investigation of these events.

The answers to the inquiries in the questionnaire revealed to be stable and the agreement varied between moderate and almost perfect. The question related to binge eating episodes was the only one that presented moderate reliability. This is probably due to the fact that in spite of the question being in conformity with the description of a binge eating episode, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) 16, the consensus among professionals of the area is that it is very fragile for describing this phenomenon, because of the difficulty in quantifying "overeating episodes". Considering the subjectivity of the question, it might be more appropriate to include other questions, which probably would improve the reliability of the questionnaire to investigate this behavior, especially among younger subjects.

Most of the studies that aimed at evaluating the reliability of tools for the investigation of ED 17, 18, 19, 20 tested long and complex questionnaires applied to a young adult population, for example young university students whose level of comprehension is higher than that of the adolescents here evaluated, which limits the comparison to our results. Another limitation is the fact that the reliability of individual questions in the questionnaire was assessed for each risk behavior, and not with a diagnosis made on the basis of a sum of points (score), as is the case in most questionnaires. However, bearing the methodological differences in mind, some comparisons are relevant. Luce & Crowher21, while investigating the reliability of scores obtained through the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire (EDE-Q) in 139 American university students with an average age of 18.5 years, also using 15-day interval between test and retest, found good correlation (coefficient of Pearson) among the answers to the questionnaire items related to binge eating episodes (r = 0.68), self-induced vomiting (r = 0.92), use of laxatives (r = 0.65) and use of diuretics (r = 0.54). These authors concluded that the questionnaire had good stability for tracking ED in the referred population.

Waaddegaard et al.22, in order to evaluate the reliability of a questionnaire called Risk Behaviors Related to Eating Disorders (RiBED-8), applied it to 49 Danish adolescents in the age range of 14-21 years, found values of k=0.71 (p=0.001), and considered the tool to have very good stability for epidemiological studies. A similar agreement, with kappa values close to the ones found in the present study (k=0.67-0.82), was also reported by Moya et al. 23, in a research on the reliability of questionnaires present in the Session of Eating Disorders of the Development and Well-Being Assessment (DAWBA) validated by these authors for the diagnosis of ED in Brazilian adolescents in the 7-17 years age range.

The fact that the stability of the question on the habit of going on strict diets being a little better for males when compared to females is in agreement with Johnson et al.24, when they studied the reliability of the Questionnaire on Eating and Weight Patterns - revised (QEWP), version for adolescents, in a sample of 106 American students of a public school, in the age range of 12-18 years. With the aim of evaluating the QEWP's reliability and of verifying if there was any gender difference, the authors drew the conclusion that this questionnaire presented good stability for males; however, it should be used with more caution for females.

The reliability of the questionnaire evaluated in the present study was good to track the frequency of strict dieting and to investigate infrequent behaviors such as the use of diuretics, laxatives and self-induced vomiting, and moderate to assess the frequency of binge eating episodes. In conclusion, considering that this questionnaire is shorter and simpler than others, and even so, it covers issues on the main behaviors that indicate the presence of risk for the development of ED, this questionnaire can be useful in epidemiological studies to approach the problem in young people. Even without the objective of obtaining a complete diagnosis of ED, the early identification of risk behaviors could already help reduce the progression of such undesirable behaviors and its deleterious consequences on health.



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Forward mail to:
Julia Elba de Souza Ferreira
Instituto de Nutrição Josué de Castro
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
Av. Brigadeiro Trompowisky, s/nº, Ilha do Fundão, CCS, Bloco J 2ºandar
Rio de Janeiro, RJ - CEP 21941-590



Based on study on Risk Behaviors for Eating Disorders among Adolescents in Public Schools of Niterói-RJ (Comportamentos de Risco para Transtornos Alimentares em adolescentes estudantes de escolas públicas de Niterói-RJ), for the MSc dissertation, presented to the Graduate Program in Nutrition of the Instituto de Nutrição Josué de Castro of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
No Funding source or conflict of interest