Hayley used to love going to the food court in the mall with her
friends, but now just the thought of it fills her with dread. Besides,
she doesn't really even have time to hang with her friends anymore since
she's upped her exercise schedule to include even more running and
She doesn't feel like herself lately - she's having a
hard time concentrating in school and she's always so tired. She's
really thin, too - so how come every time Hayley passes a mirror, she
sees an overweight girl staring back at her?
If you know someone
in your school who is like Hayley - or if you recognize yourself in her -
you're not alone. Hayley has an eating disorder, a condition that
occurs when a person tries to become thin in an unhealthy way. Eating
disorders are very common in America - between 5 and 10 million people
have them. In fact, it's thought that one in 10 college-age girls has
some type of eating disorder.
But eating disorders don't strike
only girls in college; many girls in high school and even junior high
(or middle school) have them, too. It's estimated that 1% of American
teens has an eating disorder. That means if your class has 400 students,
probably about four of them have this condition.
Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa
two most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and
bulimia nervosa, more commonly known as anorexia and bulimia.
tends to occur in teen girls and young women, and it's characterized by
a very intense fear of being fat. When a person has anorexia, she
hardly eats at all - and the small amount of food that she does eat
becomes an obsession for her. A person with anorexia may weigh food
before she eats it, or compulsively count the calories of everything she
puts in her mouth. And, like Hayley, she will often feel the need to exercise for a long time
each day to burn off calories.
feeling fit or trim isn't enough for a person who has anorexia; she
wants to become as thin as possible, at any cost. But even though she
might be shedding pounds at a dangerous rate, someone with anorexia
doesn't see herself as thin. Like Hayley, when a girl with anorexia
looks in the mirror or pictures herself in her mind's eye, she still
sees a girl who is fat and needs to lose weight.
Bulimia is a bit
different from anorexia because someone with bulimia doesn't avoid
eating. Instead, she eats a huge amount of food in a couple of hours,
then gets rid of it quickly by vomiting or taking laxatives. This is
commonly known as "binge and purge" behavior, and like anorexia, it
tends to affect girls, teens, and young women. Some people can have both
anorexia and bulimia. Often, people with bulimia can be hard to pick
out because their weight may be average or above average.
is really sure what causes eating disorders, although there have been
some good ideas as to why they occur. Most girls who develop an eating
disorder are between the ages of 11 and 14 (although they can develop
even earlier in some people). At this time in their lives, many girls
don't feel as though they have much control over anything; the changes
that come along with puberty
can make it easy for even the most confident person to feel a bit out
of control. By controlling their own bodies, people with eating
disorders feel as though they can regain some control - even if it is
done in an unhealthy way.
And even though it's completely normal
(and necessary) for girls to gain some additional body fat during
puberty, some girls respond to this change by becoming very fearful of
this weight and feel compelled to get rid of it any way they can. Some
girls who develop eating disorders are depressed
or have low self-esteem
, and their anorexia or bulimia gives them some way to handle the stresses and anxieties of being a teen.
Sports and Eating Disorders
girls might be more apt to develop an eating disorder depending on the
sport they choose. Gymnasts, ice skaters, and ballerinas are told time
and time again to lose weight, and even runners might be encouraged by a
coach or parent to go on a diet. But in an effort to make their bodies
perfect and please those around them, these athletes
can end up with an eating disorder.
it's unusual for guys to have anorexia or bulimia, it can occur,
especially with the demands of certain sports. A sport like wrestling,
for example, has specific weight categories that can lead some guys to
develop an eating disorder. In some cases, eating disorders in male
athletes are even unintentionally encouraged; they are taught that
winning is the most important thing, even if they end up developing
unhealthy behaviors to do so.
But the truth is that an eating
disorder does much more harm than good. Athletes with eating disorders,
whether girls or boys, may find that because of a lack of energy and
nutrients, their athletic performances deteriorate and they become injured
more often - the opposite of what they were trying to achieve in the first place by losing weight.
same goes for girls who take up modeling - their worth is measured in
pounds and ounces. It's easy to see why some girls might be more prone
to developing an eating disorder: just turn on the TV or flip through a
fashion magazine. Some supermodels, actresses, and TV personalities are
often extremely thin, far below what their natural weight should really
be. When these role models are so tiny, it can easily make a girl wonder
about what the definition of beautiful really is, and help create a
distorted image in her mind about her own body.
scientists have found that eating disorders may be related to a chemical
problem in the brain, much like depression. There is also evidence that
eating disorders tend to run in families - if a parent doesn't like her
own body or is too concerned with her daughter's looks, it can increase
the girl's chances for developing an eating disorder.
Effects of Eating Disorders
the cause of an eating disorder, the effects can be damaging - if not
downright devastating and life-threatening. When a girl weighs at least
15% less than the normal weight for her height, she may not have enough
body fat to keep her organs and other body parts healthy. A person with
anorexia can do damage to her heart, liver, and kidneys by not eating
enough. Her body slows everything down as if it was starving, causing a
drop in blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate.
Because some girls come so close to starving themselves, they may stop getting their period
Lack of energy can lead to light-headedness and an inability to
concentrate. Anemia (lack of red blood cells) and swollen joints are
common, as are brittle bones. Anorexia can cause hair to fall out,
fingernails to break off, and a soft hair called lanugo to grow all over
the skin - all very unhealthy and unattractive qualities. In severe
cases, eating disorders can lead to severe malnutrition and even death.
with bulimia often suffer from constant stomach pain or damage to the
stomach and kidneys from so much vomiting. Their teeth may start to
decay because of the acids that come up into the mouth while vomiting.
They may develop "chipmunk cheeks," which occur when the salivary glands
permanently expand from throwing up so often. Like girls with anorexia,
girls with bulimia may stop getting their period. And most dangerous of
all, the constant purging can lead to a loss of the necessary mineral
potassium, which can lead to heart problems and even death.
emotional pain of an eating disorder can take its toll, too. When a girl
becomes obsessed with her weight, it's hard for her to concentrate on
much else. Many times people with eating disorders become withdrawn and
less social. Girls with anorexia can't join in on snacks and meals with
their friends or families, and they often don't want to break from their
intense exercise routine to have fun. Girls with bulimia often spend a
lot of mental energy on planning their next binge, spend a lot of their
money on food, and hide in the bathroom for a long time after meals.
disorders are not fun - and in the case of both anorexia and bulimia -
can lead to feelings of guilt and depression. Some girls with eating
disorders begin using alcohol and drugs to help mask their feelings,
which only makes the situation worse.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
someone with an eating disorder can get well and learn to eat normally
again with the help of professionals. Because anorexia and bulimia
involve both the mind and body, medical doctors, mental health
professionals, and dietitians will often be involved in the patient's
Slowly, the person with an eating disorder can learn to eat properly again and learn about the importance of good nutrition. Therapy
or counseling is considered a critical part of treatment - and in many
cases, family therapy is one of the keys to eating healthily again.
Parents and other family members can help the patient see that her
normal body shape is perfectly fine, and that she doesn't have to be
thin to make herself or others happy.
The most critical thing
about treating eating disorders is to recognize and address the problem
as soon as possible - like all bad habits, unhealthy eating patterns
become harder to break the longer a person takes part in them. If you or
has an eating disorder, don't wait to get help - anorexia and bulimia
can do a lot of damage to the body and mind if left untreated. At worst,
eating disorders can kill, and at best, they leave a person feeling and
If you want to talk to someone about eating
disorders and you don't feel as though you can approach a parent, try
talking to a teacher, a neighbor, your doctor
or another trusted adult. Remember that eating disorders are common
among teens, and more importantly, that treatment is out there.
Warning Signs of Eating Disorders
- drops weight to about 20% below normal
- denies feeling hungry
- exercises excessively
- feels fat
- withdraws from social activities
All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical
advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
- has excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals
- eats huge amounts of food, but doesn't gain weight
- uses laxatives or diuretics
- withdraws from social activities