Eating disorders: It’s not just about food

National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives — and they can affect anyone, regardless of age, size, gender, race, sexuality, ability or socioeconomic status.

There is a commonly held belief that eating disorders are a “lifestyle choice” when, in fact, they are serious and sometimes fatal illnesses “caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Read on to learn more.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious but treatable disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder — but not everyone fits neatly into one of these diagnoses.

Many eating disorders begin in adolescence, but an increasing number of kids and young adults are developing eating disorders.

While in mild cases, eating disorders may not seem serious, they are often a signal that something deeper is going on and can sometimes lead to very serious health problems including thinning of bones, anemia, brittle hair and nails, infertility, brain damage, low blood pressure, feeling tired all the time, infertility, heart damage, multi-organ failure and even death.

These conditions should not be taken lightly.

How can eating disorders be prevented?

With biological, psychological, and emotional issues at play as well as our culture’s fixation on appearance — parents will have to do double duty to help prevent eating disorders.

You can begin by:

  • Encouraging open communication. Talk to your child about his or her body image and provide assurance that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Share the dangers of extreme dieting and emotional eating. Learn to notice when they are being impacted by outside sources that encourage thinness such as sports or ballet. Encourage your teen to talk to friends or a counselor about their struggles.
  • Building self-esteem. Don’t make or allow others to make jokes about physical characteristics, weight, or body shape. Discuss media messages and encourage your teen to be critical of the idea that only one type of body is acceptable.
  • Encouraging healthy-eating habits. Focus on diet’s role in our health and energy level rather than a way to control our appearance. Teach healthy eating cues and assure them that it is okay to eat when they feel hungry. Watch for signs of emotional eating and use it as an opportunity to open dialogue about what might be going on.
  • Setting a good example. If you talk frequently about dieting, make comments about your appearance, or use food to cope, you may be sending your child or teen the wrong message. Make positive choices about your own lifestyle and model those for your family.

What are the signs and symptoms of disordered eating?

Preoccupation with food, body weight, and body size and/or shape may signal an eating disorder. Other red flags include extreme weight loss or lack of expected developmental weight gain, frequently skipping meals, persistent worry about weight gain, frequently assessing the body in a mirror, use of laxatives/diuretics/enemas, feeling guilt about eating habits, and excessive eating or exercise. While we want children and teenagers to exercise, any drastic change in intensity of exercise, type of exercise, or exercising in secret is cause for concern.

Distorted body image and self-esteem that is heavily tied to appearance are also indicators. But each condition has some of its own unique traits. For instance, symptoms of anorexia nervosa may include extremely restricted eating, emaciation, intense fear of gaining weight. Symptoms of bulimia nervosa include chronically sore throat, swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw, worn tooth enamel, acid reflux, severe dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance (which can lead to stroke or heart attack.) Symptoms of binge-eating disorder include eating unusually large amounts of food in a short period of time, eating when not hungry, eating quickly, eating until uncomfortably full, eating alone, feeling shame or guilt about eating, and frequently dieting.

If I notice signs, how can I communicate with my child about my concerns?

Begin by talking to your child in a loving and non-judgmental way. And schedule a checkup with your child’s doctor or make an appointment with Children’s Hospital at Erlanger adolescent medicine specialist Dr. John Heise. The doctor can help reinforce positive messages and get more insight into your teen’s habits and routines to make an assessment and, potentially, refer for mental health services.

Remember that the most important thing is to not wait to intervene. Eating disorders are serious and early intervention can not only speed recovery, it could change the longterm outlook of your child’s life and give them hope for a healthy adulthood.

What treatments and resources are available?

People with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide and medical complications and often have other mental disorders (such as depression or anxiety) — but recovery is possible. Treatment plans are tailored to the individual needs of each patient and may include therapy, medical care, nutritional counseling, and/or medications. If your child or teen is in crisis, resources such as a helpline and screening tool are available through organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association.

If you need support, please talk with your child’s doctor or call 423-778-5437 to schedule an appointment with Dr. John Heise.