Eating disorders destroy lives. They refer to a group of serious conditions that cause certain people to obsess over their eating habits and overall weight. On average, eating disorders affect one or two out of every 100 students. They happen frequently among teenagers concerned about their body image. People who go on a diet or exercise to lose weight do not qualify as having an eating disorder. Eating disorders form when a person goes to the extreme in the way they consume food. For instance, a person who refuses to eat anything over a long period of time may have developed an eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa. Another person may develop bulimia, an eating disorder characterized by excessive eating followed by vomiting. Other food-related disorders include binge eating, body dysmorphic disorder, and food phobias.
When most people think of eating disorders, they conjure thoughts of someone refusing to nibble on a carrot. This belief links to an actual eating disorder called anorexia. People who suffer from this eating disorder struggle with the fear of gaining weight. They also have a warped view of their body size and shape. Many teenagers with anorexia restrict their food consumption through extreme dieting, fasting, and excessive exercise. They rarely eat anything at all. If they do decide to eat something, it usually involves a very small amount of food. People with anorexia become obsessed with their refusal to eat. Many anorexic people require special treatment to overcome their eating disorder.
A lesser-known eating disorder involves eating to the point of feeling pain and then vomiting it all up shortly after to avoid weight gain. The medical establishment has coined this eating disorder as bulimia. Bulimia may also involve excessive exercising to prevent weight gain. Bulimia can physically and emotionally drain a sufferer. Over time, these compulsive behaviors put the sufferer at risk for developing serious health issues. Medical professionals diagnose bulimia sufferers when they have reached a regular habit of eating and purging at least twice a week for a couple of months. Bulimia differs from “pigging out” one day and then deciding to burn those extra calories the following morning. It has to consist of extreme eating and purging on a regular basis, usually in secret. Do not mistake bulimia as binge eating. The latter actually involves eating large quantities of food without throwing up or exercising to avoid weight gain.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): What is Bulimia?
Friends and family can identify symptoms of anorexia and bulimia in their loved ones. The first sign usually involves the sufferer suddenly changing their eating habits in order to lose weight. The sufferer may develop an addiction to eating less and over-exercising in a short period of time. They may act erratically when approached about their eating disorder. Teenagers suffering from anorexia or bulimia may express an intense fear of getting fat or think they have already gained weight when they have not. People with anorexia may count and restrict calories compulsively. In serious cases, people can just look at a sufferer and know they have an eating disorder or addiction. Teenagers suffering from anorexia especially might become very thin, frail, or emaciated over time.
No one quite understands what causes eating disorders. Many experts have devised theories that might explain the psychology behind them. They do know that adolescents and teenagers tend to develop eating disorders more than any other age group. This happens because of emotional and physical changes that occur in conjunction with mounting academic and peer pressure. Many teenagers feel vulnerable about their personal freedom and image and may act out in ways that seem out of the norm to parents. Teenage girls tend to react to bodily changes differently than teenage boys. If they gain a little bit of weight, they want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. They may think that starving themselves will solve their problems. Teenage boys may want to avoid looking like the stereotypical “fatty.” As with nearly everybody who watches movies and television, teenagers might want to look like celebrity role models. This can have a negative impact on teenagers during puberty, when their bodies go through changes. Other people who develop eating disorders may suffer from other mental health issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression.
Athletes and dancers tend to develop eating disorders around the time of puberty. Pressure from coaches, family, and friends may reinforce negative eating habits in teens who are self-conscious about their weight. They may decide that restricting or stopping their eating habits altogether will help them join the football team or cheerleading squad. Some sports have gained a reputation for encouraging athletes to be thin as possible. Some athletes and runners may feel pressured to lose weight when they are biologically unable to do it.
The negative effects of eating disorders can ruin lives. Sufferers may struggle with stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. If left untreated, sufferers may develop serious physical health problems. Statistically, sufferers with less than 15 percent of the average body weight may not have enough fat to sustain vital organs in their bodies. In severe cases, sufferers may become malnourished to the point of death. Anorexia sufferers may experience a drop in blood pressure, hair loss, fingernail breakage, disruption in their menstruation cycle, swollen joints, brittle bones, anemia, and lightheadedness. Bulimia sufferers may experience constant stomach pain, kidney or stomach damage, tooth decay, loss of periods, and loss of potassium. They may also develop “chipmunk cheeks,” a syndrome that occurs when the salivary glands swell permanently in a sufferer. Binge-eaters may suffer the development of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Sufferers may have to hurdle pretty big obstacles before they see improvement. The emotional pain of an eating disorder can take its toll, which can lead to mental and nervous breakdowns. When sufferers start to obsess over their weight, it becomes hard to concentrate on other things. It can become exhausting and overwhelming to monitor what they eat and how long they exercised for on any given day. The constant stress about food and how their body looks can completely destroy their self-esteem. Sufferers may also feel guilty about keeping their eating disorder a secret from their family and friends.
Sufferers can find treatment for their eating disorders. With the right protocol, sufferers can regain control of their eating habits and live normal lives. It does require compliance, determination, and patience to see results. Eating disorders involve both the mind and the body, which means sufferers will need the assistance of medical doctors, mental health professionals, and dietitians to get back on the road to recovery. In many cases, sufferers will need therapy and counseling to uncover the roots of their eating disorder. Parents and other family members may participate in group sessions to offer support. They will also play an integral role in keeping the sufferer on track at home by ensuring that they eat right. Sufferers should keep a journal to track their progress.
Once sufferers become comfortable with their new lifestyle, they will see dramatic changes take place. It takes time to unlearn destructive behaviors and reinforce positive changes. With enough patience and diligence, sufferers will understand their eating behaviors. They will know what caused them to obsess about their weight. As a result, they will know what to do to combat anything that may cause a relapse. They will have all of the tools and support at their disposal. Learning to love and accept themselves will be the biggest reward they can attain after overcoming their eating disorder or addiction.
- Eating Disorders in Adolescents: Position Paper of the Society For Adolescent Medicine (PDF)