What are Eating Disorders?
Although eating disorders focus on food, weight, and body shape, there are often underlying issues masked by the disorder. Adolescence is a period of significant physical, psychological, social, and environmental change. Often, the physical changes that occur during this period are accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness and comparisons with peers, which can lead to low self-esteem and heightened body image concerns. Environmentally, this is also around the time where young people change schools and friendships groups and begin to develop an interest in romantic relationships. With such significant changes occurring in a young person’s life within such a short period, it is no wonder that they can begin to feel a loss of control over their lives and a sense of uncertainty. Eating disorders can become a way for adolescents to gain control over their lives.
The most common eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa: restricted eating with an aim of losing more weight than is healthy, and having a distorted body image; obsessive fears of gaining weight which often leads to depriving the body of food, and increased levels of exercise
- Bulimia nervosa: eating large amounts of food (often in secret) and then getting rid of the food and/or the extra calories using laxatives, vomiting, or excessive exercise
- Binge-eating disorder: eating large amounts of food without compensatory behaviours; often accompanied with feelings of guilt and disgust or depression
- Disordered eating: eating behaviours that are distressing for the individual and impacting on an individual’s life
Common myths about eating disorders include: only ‘thin’ people have eating disorders, and that eating disorders are a ‘female-only problem’. Although more females present with eating disorders than males, unfortunately both males and females can develop eating disorders. However, eating disorders tend to go untreated for longer in males as body image and eating problems are rarely screened for in this population.
Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice; often adolescents suffering from eating disorders find themselves stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and dangerous behaviours that maintain the disorder. Often, because the eating disorder provides a sense of control/comfort, individuals find it difficult to stop the behaviours without seeking treatment
Below are some common red flags for eating disorders. If you notice any of these symptoms and are concerned about your adolescent having an eating disorder, it is important that you speak with a trained health professional as soon as possible.
- Limiting portion sizes and dieting
- Cutting out major food groups, e.g. carbohydrates
- Avoiding social activities that involve food
- Going to the bathroom during or immediately after meals
- Exercising excessively, especially when alone
- Using laxatives or spending long periods of time in the bathroom
- In females: irregular periods or periods stopping
- Feeling tired and lacking energy more often than not
- Soft downy hair growing on arms, face, or torso
- Hair loss from head
- Swollen puffy cheeks
- Damaged teeth and/or gums
- Sores on hands and/or knuckles
- Mood swings
- Sensitivity to references about weight or appearance
- Fluctuations in weight
- Deceptive behaviour around food (e.g., throwing lunches away)
- Eating in secret
Treatment for Eating Disorders
Seeking help early from a health professional trained specifically in this field is crucial, as early intervention for disordered eating can prevent it from becoming a full-fledged eating disorder. In addition, having a full health check from your GP is pertinent to ensure your child is medically stable.
Depending on the exact nature of the child’s eating disorder and their age, Family Therapy may be recommended in order to assist the child’s parents to ‘refeed’ their child. There are several stages of family therapy for eating disorders, initially focusing on nutritional restoration and the latter focus on more adolescent specific issues.
Another eating disorder treatment option is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The goal of CBT is to help adolescents identify and understand their negative and unhelpful thought patterns around food and their body image, and how these impact their feelings and behaviours. Working with a trained psychologist, your adolescent then learns new and helpful strategies to change these thoughts and behaviours. Additionally, your child will be gradually exposed to feared and avoided foods under the guidance of the psychologist.