People affected by an eating disorder can feel isolated, hopeless and unable to see past the dark cloud of the illness. But help is available, and it is possible to overcome an eating disorder through medical treatment and emotional support. February 26 – March 4 is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time to raise awareness of a dangerous disease.
Contrary to what some may believe, an eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are dangerous, life-threatening illnesses that must be diagnosed and treated by medical professionals.
A person can develop an eating disorder at various stages of life, though they most frequently manifest in the teenage years and early adulthood. Eating disorders can affect men but are more common in women and girls.
Because teenage girls are at greater risk than others of developing an eating disorder, it’s important for parents to recognize the signs of a possible problem and be able to speak with their child – and their child’s physician – about their observations. It’s also important for parents to cultivate in their children, at a young age, healthy attitudes about food, diet and body image.
Major Types of Eating Disorders
According to the National Institutes of Health, while researchers continue to explore the causes, it has been established that eating disorders “are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors.” The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
People with anorexia nervosa believe they are overweight – even when they are normal or underweight – and become obsessive about trying to lose more weight. To accomplish this, they deny themselves food or eat in dangerously small quantities. They do this repeatedly, to the extent that they literally starve themselves. People with anorexia have a stark fear of gaining weight and an unhealthy obsession with body image, often checking the mirror and weighing themselves.
Symptoms of anorexia include extreme thinness and emaciation, distorted sense of body image and low self-esteem. Anorexia’s toll on the body can cause several physical symptoms, including:
Thinning of the bones (osteoporosis)
Yellowing of the skin
Low blood pressure
Lethargy and sluggishness
Over time, anorexia can damage the brain, heart and other organs. Anorexia can be fatal, as someone with the disease can eventually starve to death.
People who suffer from bulimia nervosa eat large amounts of food and then, ashamed they have overeaten, purge their bodies of the food through forced vomiting or the use of laxatives and diuretics. This cycle of bingeing and purging may also be accompanied by fasting or unusually intense exercise.
Bulimia nervosa, like anorexia, wreaks havoc on the body and can be life-threatening. It causes:
Chronic sore throat
Tooth decay, due to loss of enamel to stomach acid exposure
Electrolyte imbalance, which can cause heart attack or stroke
With binge-eating disorder, people compulsively eat way too much food – in large quantities, quickly and with regularity, at least once a week. This may, but doesn’t always, lead to weight gain and possible obesity. Symptoms include:
Eating when not hungry
Eating alone in order to hide overeating
Eating large quantities of food in one sitting
Eating until uncomfortably full
Feeling intense guilt or shame after eating
Binge-eating to the point of overweightness or obesity can increase risk for a variety of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol.
Talking with Your Children
Privia North Texas physicians recommend several things parents can do to foster healthy habits and attitudes in their children, increasing their defenses against an eating disorder down the road:
“Talk with your children, starting at a young age, about healthy eating and encourage them to eat when they are hungry. Don’t use food as a reward or punishment for discipline purposes,” says Dr. Melissa McFadden, a Fort Worth primary care physician.
“Kids are bombarded with messages and images from television, the movies, social media and their peers about body image,” says Dr. Andrea Palmer, an obstetrician and gynecologist with offices in Fort Worth and Burleson. “A lot of what children are hearing and seeing isn’t good for their emotional health. Parents should openly discuss these issues with their kids.”
“Fostering healthy self-esteem in your child helps protect against dangers such as an eating disorder,” explains Dr. Kathleen Cammack, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Fort Worth and Burleson. “The better grounded and happy the child is, the better prepared he or she is to resist unhealthy messages. Expressing pride in your children’s achievements, in school and in extracurricular activities, helps to build a healthy sense of self.”
“We all try to teach our children to be nice and to treat others with respect,” says Dr. Michelle Torres, a Fort Worth primary care physician. “It’s important they understand it’s never acceptable to call someone ‘fat’ or otherwise insult someone’s appearance. Rejecting those types of judgements helps reinforce healthy attitudes about weight and body image.”
Your child’s doctor can help with these conversations, as well – both by offering advice to parents and reinforcing these messages to your child.
Warning Signs for Parents
“Our kids’ behaviors change a lot as they become teenagers; that’s part of adolescence,” says Dr. McFadden. “And while most of the changes you’ll notice your teen going through are completely normal, there are some eating disorder warning signs parents should be aware of.”
“If your child seems overly-focused on losing weight, is skipping meals or spends an abnormal amount of time checking the mirror or scale, these could be warning signs,” Dr. Palmer explains. “Conversely, overeating or eating excessive amounts of high-sugar and high-fat foods are things to watch for, as are going to the bathroom immediately following meals and any frequent laxative use.”
If you notice any of these behaviors with your child, you should speak with them about it and try to find out what’s going on. You should also make an appointment with your child’s physician, who can look for any physical indications of an eating disorder.
Treatment for an eating disorder may involve a combination of counseling and medication. A physician may prescribe an antidepressant or other medication to fight the illness. Counseling and therapy with a mental health professional can also help overcome the disorder. For teenagers, a good support system at home is especially important.
“An eating disorder is a serious illness and must be treated medically,” says Dr. Cammack. “And while we still have more to discover about the causes of eating disorders and how to prevent them, there are treatments that have proven effective at helping people overcome the illness and lead healthy lives. If you think you may have an eating disorder, or your child may be showing signs of one, you do not have to – and should not try to – deal with this alone. Call your physician and make an appointment today – your doctor is there to help you and your child.”
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