Eating disorders can be deadly. Know the signs in a teen is imperative for parents.
Story: Iris Ruth Pastor
What parent hasn’t worried about their teenager’s eating habits, nutritional intake, body image issues, and general well-being? There are good reasons why we obsess and hover close during our children’s formative, double-digit years.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to Current Psychiatry Reports (2012). And if that’s not scary enough, studies show 50 percent of teenage girls and 30 percent of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors, such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives to control their weight.
An eating disorder is a fickle lover, roaming the land, looking for the vulnerable. He doesn’t just flirt with skinny white girls longing to get skinnier. He also preys on males, athletes, the LGBT community, and members of all ethnic groups and at all socioeconomic levels. And eating disorders are aided and abetted by the proliferation of pro-ana internet sites that promote behaviors related to anorexia nervosa and other disorders.
The definition of an eating disorder is an illness characterized by irregular eating habits and severe distress or concern about body weight or shape, according to eatingdisorderhope.com.
Three of the most common disordered eating patterns are:
Anorexics—who starve their bodies.
• Bulimics—who eat excessive amounts of food and then usually purge to rid themselves of the calories.
• Binge eaters—who eat excessive amounts but do not purge or use laxatives.
Warning signs of a possible eating disorder
Change in eating habits
· Only eating a few certain foods viewed as nonthreatening and low in calories and fat content.
· Preoccupation with food and dieting.
· Habitually eating large amounts of food in a short period of time with no apparent weight gain or a significant weight gain.
Change in behavior
· Excessive weighing.
· Using appetite-suppressant drugs, laxatives, or diuretics.
· Exercising extremely often and compulsively.
Change in appearance
· Large weight loss or gain.
More nuanced clues may also suggest an eating disorder’s insidious influence: Rigid rituals around eating. Secrecy. Depression. Heightened anxiety. Avoidance of situations where there is food. Withdrawal from friends and family. Tying self-worth and mood to the number on the scale. A mindset of “food is the enemy.”
None of these facts were of particular interest to me in 1966 when eating disorder first came courting. I was an out-of-state transfer student attending the University of Florida, unsure of a field of study. I was 1,000 miles away from my mom and dad for the very first time. And my high school boyfriend had just broken up with me.
I lacked a strong sense of self. I had deficient anger management skills. I was preoccupied with the width of my hips. I weighed myself daily—OK, sometimes hourly—and the needle on the scale determined my mood and my level of self-confidence. My grounding thought was to stay thin. When I was thin, I coped. Soared. Commanded attention. I was no longer ordinary or invisible. I got second looks from the frat boys and teaching assistants. Cafeteria workers remembered me and student leaders knew my name. It was incredibly empowering. What teenager can resist that?
Help is available if you suspect your son or daughter is “flirting” with eating disorder. Talk to your pediatrician or school counselor. Treatment centers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and eating disorder associations abound.
About the author
Iris Ruth Pastor has published more than 700 columns in various outlets, including the Huffington Post, where she was named a “Must Read Blogger.” Her new memoir, “The Secret Life of a Weight-Obsessed Woman,” emphasizes that change and renewal are possible at any age and any stage and is available through major booksellers. For more information, visit irisruthpastor.com.