Understanding Eating Disorders

As children reach puberty they undergo dramatic physical changes and start facing new social pressures. They start feeling very self-conscious about how they look and feel an increased need to be accepted. Unfortunately, a small proportion of kids and teens develop an unhealthy obsession with their self-image that can become an eating disorder.

There are several sorts of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are perhaps the best known of these. All eating disorders can cause physical and psychological problems. Physical problems are usually related to weight fluctuations while psychological problems include depression, social isolation, and a pervasive sense of shame.

It is thought that parents can help prevent an eating disorder by helping their kids develop healthy self-esteem. By helping their kids to feel good about themselves and their appearance in nurturing and supportive manner parents can help reduce the emotions that lead to eating disorders. If you suspect that your child already has an eating disorder it is best to intervene immediately and seek medical care. These are generally not problems that a family can deal with on its own.

Eating disorders involve a very self-critical view of oneself. A person with an eating disorder will feel persistently negative about his/her body, weight, and food. The eating disorder will disrupt eating habits which lead to physical problems. The thoughts and feelings that surround the eating disorder are pervasive and sometimes intrusive which means they often interfere with the patients daily activities.

Eating disorders are more prevalent in females but can affect males as well. Teenage girls are the most at risk group. It is thought that about 1-2% of American kids will develop an eating disorder at some time. Unfortunately, the shame that people with eating disorders feel about their body prevents them from seeking help and they often hide the disorder from their families for many months.

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People suffering from anorexia nervosa have an extreme fear of weight gain. They are often unable to see their body as anything except “disgusting” and “fat” no matter how distorted this view is. As a result, they are unable to maintain a healthy body weight and will restrict their food intake in an attempt to get thinner. Some anorexics will engage in excessive exercise.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by cycles of binge eating followed by purging. Each part of the cycle is accompanied by negative psychological feelings. This eating disorder often creates dramatic weight fluctuations but is rarely associated with the extremely low weight brought about by anorexia nervosa.

People with anorexia nervosa are usually very underweight especially in the late stages of the illness. On the other hand, those with bulimia nervosa can appear anywhere between normal and overweight.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Scientists are yet to establish clear reasons as to why eating disorders develop or why a person develops the particular eating disorder they present with. At the moment it is thought that a combination of factors works together to produce the illness. As with many other illnesses, a combination of genetic, psychological, social, and familial factors are implicated in the etiology of an eating disorder.

People with eating disorders often struggle to see themselves accurately. They have an intense fear of being fat and might see themselves as being overweight when they really aren’t. Certain sports (ballet, gymnastics, wrestling) are thought to be risk factors for eating disorders because of their stringent weight requirements.

It has been noticed that people with eating disorders are more likely to have additional psychiatric disorders than the general population. Anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are much more prevalent in people with eating disorders.

Problematic home life is also sometimes implicated in developing an eating disorder. For example, substance abuse in the home can increase the risk of a kid developing an eating disorder.

The media depicts a “thin ideal” portrayal of men and women. Models in adverts, presenters on TV, actors, and everyone in between are usually very thin. This gives the impression that in order to be socially desirable one has to be thin. Girls and boys who feel unable to meet this unspoken expectation may be left with feelings that could spur the development of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders can begin at a very young age. Most kids who have an eating disorder developed the disordered eating patterns between the ages of 11 and 13. For many kids with an eating disorder, the pattern of eating represents a way to regain control. They feel inadequate but by acting out on the eating disorder they regain a sense of control over themselves and their environment.

The Effects of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are thought to be psychological in origin but can lead to serious physical problems or even death. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can leave the body dehydrated which impacts on the kidneys. Heart problems are more likely in people with an eating disorder.

If somebody is starving themselves because of anorexia nervosa the body will try to adjust itself to deal with the lack of nutrition:

  • Blood pressure, pulse rate, and breathing rate all drop
  • Hair loss
  • Anemia
  • Brittle fingernails and easily broken bones
  • Menstrual cycle stops
  • Fine body hair everywhere
  • Lightheadedness and problems with concentrating
  • Swollen joints

People who are active in the illness of bulimia nervosa will also encounter problems such as:

  • “chipmunk cheeks” resulting from swollen salivary glands
  • loss of potassium
  • heart problems
  • damage to the stomach and kidneys
  • tooth decay
  • constant stomach pain
  • Warning Signs

Because people with eating disorders are very secretive about their behavior it can be very difficult to identify when somebody has an eating disorder. Most kids in puberty have self-esteem concerns so it might be difficult to differentiate an eating disorder from this very normal phase of life.

In general people with eating disorders will display a number of other behaviours that you could look out for. Somebody with anorexia nervosa might:

  • Lose a lot of weight and become very frail
  • Become obsessed with food and weigh out portions carefully
  • Avoid certain foods like dairy, meat, wheat
  • Exercise excessively
  • Withdraw socially
  • Be depressed and lack energy
  • Feel the cold more than other people

Somebody with bulimia nervosa might:

  • Withdraw from social activities that involve food
  • Go to the bathroom straight after eating
  • Eat only diet or low-fat foods (except on binges)
  • Regularly use a lot of laxatives or diuretics
  • Exercise excessively to try and burn off calories
  • Feel very unhappy about his/her body and fear weight gain

Eating disorders are medical conditions that require expert treatment. If you suspect that a loved one has an eating disorder it is very important to intervene and make sure that your suspicion is diagnosed and treated correctly. A person with an eating disorder can be expected to initially react defensively and deny the problem. They will struggle to admit they have a problem and their distorted self-image will be very difficult to break through. Nonetheless, eating disorders can have dire consequences if left untreated.

Remember that only a doctor is able to formally diagnose an eating disorder. It is key that you seek medical help for an objective and accurate assessment before planning a treatment intervention.

Treating Eating Disorders

Treatment for Eating Disorders needs to comprehensively address the physical problems, disordered eating pattern, behavioral concerns, and any other psychological issues that may co-occur. This will be accomplished by a multi-disciplinary team that draws on a number of professions. Residential treatment is usually advised especially for the early stages of treating eating disorders.

Treatment will help kids to reestablish healthy eating patterns and to challenge the way they think and feel about food. This might include supervision of mealtimes, nutritional counselling, and psychotherapy. The self-esteem and body-image of the patient will be addressed to help him/her feel more comfortable.

Most treatment clinics require that a person have a BMI of 18 before admission. Patients with a lower BMI are usually required to be admitted to a specialist hospital that has the capacity to deal with the medical risks of malnutrition.

As with many other illnesses intervening in the early stages of an eating disorder is more effective than later intervention.

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