Eating Disorders

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 aerobics.

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
The two most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, more commonly known as anorexia and bulimia.

Anorexia 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.

Just 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.

No one 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
Some 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.

Though 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.

The 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.

Finally, some 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
Whatever 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.

People 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.

The 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.

Eating 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
Fortunately, 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 treatment.

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 a friend 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 looking terrible.

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

  • 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
Note:   All information is for educational purposes only.  For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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