Eating disorders are very common in today’s image-obsessed culture. Kids and teens who are having trouble with stress, self-esteem and other emotional issues can develop eating disorders as a way to gain a sense of control or to soothe uncomfortable feelings, like sadness, loneliness, or unworthiness. While it’s more common for girls and women to develop eating disorders, boys and men are also vulnerable.
There are several kinds of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is when a person eats so little they begin to starve. Binge eating is when a person privately consumes large amounts of high-calorie foods. Bulimia is when a person feels they have to purge themselves of all they’ve eaten, by throwing up, taking laxatives, or exercising obsessively.
Signs and symptoms
Eating disorders can permanently damage a person’s mental and physical health and put their life at risk. The good news is that people with eating disorders can recover their physical and mental health. The sooner their eating disorder comes to light and they receive proper treatment, the better they will do. There are many early signs of an eating disorder. Pay attention to such telltale behaviours as:
- making excuses to not eat with family and friends
- taking only tiny servings and moving their food around their plate instead of eating it
- eating only a small selection of low-calorie foods, like grapefruit or lettuce
- going to the bathroom right after meals
- wearing loose, baggy clothing to hide their shape
- not doing things they used to enjoy, like spending time with friends or playing a sport
- acting tired and moody
A person does not have to be “skinny” to have an eating disorder. They could be an average weight or overweight, or they could gain and lose weight in an ongoing cycle. Or, they could be getting thinner all the time. Other physical signs include pale or yellowish skin, hair falling out or fine hair growing on the skin, coldness or sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, and acid reflux.
People with eating disorders don’t always see they have a problem—or they might know but feel too ashamed or afraid to talk to anyone about it. Before you approach your friend, family member, or child, learn about eating disorders and how to help. Find out what resources are available in your community. Keep this information handy to share with the person you are worried about. When you approach them, be careful not to judge or blame, as this could make things worse. Calmly let them know what specific behaviours you’ve noticed and why these have you concerned. Let them know you want to help them be healthy again, but don’t tell them what to do or what not to do. Instead, ask them to tell you how you can help. Offer to go with them to a counsellor or clinic, and let them know you are there to listen to and support them. Seeking professional help is an important step toward healing.
Thinking about your body isn’t unusual, especially for teenage girls and boys who want to fit in with their friends. You may find yourself trying out different hair styles, exploring different fashions, and planning to eat healthy and exercise as part of feeling good about yourself. These are normal, healthy things to do. But sometimes, young people can get caught up in going to extremes that aren’t healthy, like not eating enough or being driven to over-exercise. These extremes can lead to a number of health and mental health problems like dizziness, feeling tired and moody, and being preoccupied with food. If this pattern continues, they will find it hard to concentrate, may get depressed and gradually not want to do the things that used to make them happy, like spending time with friends, or playing a sport, or being with their families. Teens who eat too little may also find that they feel driven to overeat when they finally do eat, and begin to feel “out-of-control” and ashamed of their eating habits. This type of “binge eating” can lead to a feeling of panic and trying to get rid of the food eaten, and if it continues, can lead to problems with weight gain, stomach cramps, digestive problems, heart problems, and generally feeling tired, moody and unhappy.
So what would can you do if you are having problems with eating too little, or “binge-eating”? First, realize that you are not alone, and that other young people have had these problems and have overcome them. Sometimes talking with someone whom you trust, is enough to help you to get on a better track with your eating and activity levels. Sitting down at regular meals with your family can also help, rather than eating alone. Find out from your physician what would be healthy for you, and even ask for a referral to a nutritionist if you are confused about your body’s needs.
Sometimes “eating too little” or “driven exercise” take on a life of their own and you need more help to reclaim your life and be happy and healthy again. Talk to your doctor about your feelings and get a referral for help from a mental health professional.