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Ounce of Prevention

Is Your Teen Showing Signs or Symptoms Possibly Indicating an Eating Disorder?

National Eating Disorder Week is February 20th through February 26th, 2011. In honor of this significant week (in the U.S.), I am speaking out to parents and loved ones of adolescent aged girls or boys suspected of having an eating disorder. Early detection and treatment is critical to survival of and healing from an eating disorder.

I am an active member of NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), a non-profit organization for eating disorders. “NEDAwareness Week” is a collective effort of primarily volunteers, including professionals, health care providers, students, educators, social workers, and individuals committed to raising awareness of the dangers surrounding eating disorders and the need for early intervention and treatment. This year, NEDA is asking everyone to do just one thing to help raise awareness and provide accurate information about eating disorders. In my work over the years, I have realized how frequently warning signs are not noticed or not taken seriously. My hope is that by helping parents and loved ones to recognize signs of adolescents suspected of being at risk for or possibly being active with an eating disorder, more youngsters will receive treatment sooner and have a better opportunity for wellness.

Tragically, there is not enough current research published, although facts are alarming. In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with anorexia or bulimia. Approximately 25 million more are struggling with binge eating (Crowther et al., 1992; Fairburn et al., 1993; Gordon, 1990; Hoek, 1995; Shisslak et al., 1995). Because of the secretiveness and shame associated with eating disorders, many cases are probably not reported. In addition, many individuals struggle with body dissatisfaction and sub-clinical disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. For example, it has been shown that 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance (Smolak, 1996).

For females between fifteen to twenty-four years old who suffer from anorexia nervosa, the mortality rate associated with the illness is twelve times higher than the death rate of ALL other causes of death (Sullivan,1995).

Anorexia nervosa has the highest premature fatality rate of any mental illness (Sullivan, 1995).

In a 2003 review of the literature, Hoek and van Hoeken found: 40% of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls 15-19 years old.

Significant increase in incidence of anorexia from 1935 to 1989 especially among young women 15-24:

  • A rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930
  • The incidence of bulimia in 10-39 year old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993
  • Only one-third of people with anorexia in the community receive mental health care
  • Only 6% of people with bulimia receive mental health care
  • The majority of people with severe eating disorders do not receive adequate care

Despite the prevalence of eating disorders, they continue to receive inadequate research funding.

In 2005, the National Institutes of Health estimates funding the following disorders accordingly:

  • Illness Prevalence NIH Research Funds (2005)
  • Eating disorders: 10 million people ill; $12,000,000 funding (for anorexia only)
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 4.5 million people ill: $647,000,000 funding
  • Schizophrenia: 2.2 million people ill; $350,000,000 funding

Research dollars spent on eating disorders averaged $1.20 per affected individual, compared to over $159 per affected individual for schizophrenia.

In light of these alarming statistics, let’s take a look at some of the signs and symptoms as well as behaviors that could lead to an eating disorder. It is important to understand that these symptoms are possible warning signs and not necessarily evidence of a disorder.

Possible warning signs:

  • Low fat and sugar free food preferences
  • “Healthy foods” stressed more than usual
  • Counting calories and fat grams
  • Fasting or not eating
  • Constant preoccupation with food
  • Skipping meals
  • Refusing to eat
  • Displaying rigid control around food
  • Avoiding food in social situations
  • Food allergies
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Substance abuse- including high amounts of caffeine
  • Cooking for the family but not eating
  • Larger clothing
  • Over exercising or exercising while sick
  • Reading fitness or weight magazines excessively
  • Weighing several times a day
  • Spending time in front of a mirror often
  • Constantly grabbing fat
  • Constantly checking the fit of a belt, bracelet or ring
  • Fear of not being able to control eating
  • Isolation due to fear of eating with others
  • Chronic dieting or a variety of popular diet plans
  • Holding the belief that life will be better if they can lose weight
  • Hiding food in strange places
  • Vague or secretive eating patterns
  • Self-defeating statements said after food consumption
  • Blames failure in social and professional community on weight
  • Holding the belief that food is their only friend
  • Frequently out of breath after relatively light activities
  • Excessive sweating and shortness of breath
  • High blood pressure and/or cholesterol
  • Leg and joint pain
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Decreased mobility due to weight gain or loss
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems

If you believe that a child, relative, or student has an eating disorder, it is important to express your concern and offer to help in some way. Even if your concern is not well received at the time, don’t give up. Organizations such as National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) can help you with information and brochures.

The first and most important step is to have empathy. It is making a heartfelt effort to understand another person’s experience as she experiences it and to express that understanding. Before taking any sort of action, it is imperative that the person feels accepted and understood. Once someone knows you understand and are not going to attempt to “fix” things, than you can begin to help in other ways such as gaining information, finding specialists, arranging appointments and reassuring the individual.

Clearly, we need more up-to-date research published and more support and legislation in the area of disordered eating. Please do what you can to advocate for research, legislation involving insurance coverage and medical cost support. If we all did “just one thing”, the impact would be large.

I will be participating with a leading researcher in the field of eating disorders during the Center for Mindfulness Annual Conference in early April of 2011. It will be my pleasure to share what I learn about the latest findings and research being done; stay tuned for more information by subscribing to the Living Mindfully blog.

The following websites may be helpful:

About Face: Combating Negative and Distorted Images of Women

Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders

Calgary Regional Health Authority: School Health and Eating Disorders

Dads and Daughters

National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance

National Eating Disorder Information Center

NEDA: National Eating Disorders Association

AED: Academy for Eating Disorders

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