Should you worry if your teenager seems obsessed about her weight? What if your son refuses to eat the day before a wrestling competition? It's common for teens to be concerned about their appearance and self-conscious about their weight; but in many cases, it becomes an obsession and develops into an eating disorder. As many as ten million girls and women and one million boys struggle with some form of eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.* Eighty-seven percent of those with eating disorders are under the age of twenty. Most are girls, although boys, too, can struggle with eating disorders. What differentiates an eating disorder from normal teenage concerns about appearance?
What Is an Eating Disorder?
An eating disorder is a syndrome where individuals experience a "severe disturbance[s] in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions," says the American Psychiatric Association. "Without treatment of both the emotional and physical symptoms of these disorders, malnutrition, heart problems, and other potentially fatal conditions can result."*
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is a serious, life-threatening illness marked by low weight (at least 15 percent below normal body weight, weight phobia, body image issues) and loss of menstrual cycle. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 95 percent of those who suffer from anorexia are girls and women. Those suffering with bulimia binge uncontrollably on large quantities of food and then purge the calories from their bodies through excessive exercise, vomiting, misuse of laxatives, or other unhealthy means.
It is important that parents recognize eating disorders are not something your child can control but a medical condition that requires professional attention and treatment.
Although the cause of eating disorders is not entirely clear, it appears to be a combination of genetic, environmental, societal, and psychological factors. Contributing factors can include low self-esteem, sexual abuse, and unhealthy family dynamics. Often a child who develops an eating disorder is a perfectionist, hypersensitive, or suffers from low self-esteem. Some research suggests media influence contributes to eating disorders. Certain sports, such as ballet, wrestling, and gymnastics, with their stringent weight requirements, can contribute to developing an eating disorder as well.
How to Recognize an Eating Disorder
It can be confusing for parents to differentiate normal dieting from an eating disorder. However, certain telltale signs could indicate your child is developing an eating disorder. In anorexia, these signs include the following:
Significant weight loss (15 percent below normal body weight for height)
Continual dieting despite a low body weight
Intense fear and extreme preoccupation with being overweight
Unusual eating habits, such as skipping meals, eating the same thing every day, sudden vegetarianism
Brittle hair and nails
Lack of menstrual cycles
Additionally, evidence of bulimia includes the following:
Bathroom breaks either during or after a meal, which may suggest vomiting to purge calories
Abuse of laxatives or diuretics
Dental problems, such as tooth decay
Broken blood vessels in the eyes from self-induced vomiting
Skin and hair problems
What Parents Can Do to Help
Parents should talk to their children about cultural, peer, and media pressure to lose weight and should set an example, demonstrating healthy eating habits in their own lives. Experts also recommend that parents help their children draw their self-esteem from their positive qualities--not from their appearance.
Finally, if you believe your child may have an eating disorder, seek professional help. Eating disorders do not "get better over time" but require medical attention. Visit your family doctor or make an appointment with a trained counselor. If your child refuses to accompany you, visit the doctor or counselor on your own to seek guidance in determining how best to help your teen. With proper medical treatment, most patients experience a dramatic improvement in their symptoms as well as an improved quality of life. There is hope, and help is available.
By: Mary J. Yerkes
American Association of Christian Counselors
Remuda Ranch: A Bible-based, inpatient treatment program for women and girls struggling with anorexia, bulimia, and related issues
* National Eating Disorders Association, http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/p.asp?WebPage_ID=286&Profile_ID=41144.
* American Psychiatric Association, "Let's Talk Facts about Eating Disorders," http://healthyminds.org/multimedia/eatingdisorders.pdf.