Seeing the rail-thin models who strut down catwalks at fashion shows, you might think that eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia mostly affect women whose livelihoods are based on being thin.
But more and more, these problems are affecting people from all walks of life — and, unfortunately, many of them are kids. Of the almost 24 million Americans who suffer from an eating disorder, 95% are between 12 and 25 years old.
Experts report that more than 50% of teenage girls use "unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives."
But these disorders are not just a "girl problem" — 1 in 10 cases now involve males. Guys often develop problems with eating as a response to sports or fitness — for instance, developing bulimia to reach a certain weight for wrestling or swimming. Recognizing and diagnosing eating disorders in young men can be difficult due to the perception that these are "female" problems and the shame they might feel at having a condition associated with girls.
Eating disorders — primarily anorexia (self-starvation), bulimia (bingeing and purging), and binge eating (uncontrolled consumption of large amounts of food) — typically begin in the teen years and can be easy for some kids to hide. Compulsive exercise can accompany an eating disorder, so parents might attribute a teen's lean and toned build to that and not realize disordered eating is also part of the problem. In these instances, both components — the undereating and overexercising — are attempts to gain control over complicated feelings and emotions.
So how can parents spot an eating disorder and help their child recover and have a healthy relationship with food? Be aware of the physical clues — like extreme weight loss; obsessing over food portions, calorie counts, and weight control; fear of weight gain; social withdrawal; excessive exercise; regular trips to the bathroom right after eating; use of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas; and wearing baggy clothes to hide his or her physique.
If you think your son or daughter might have an eating disorder, it's important to get help right away. People with eating disorders can become seriously ill and even die. Doctors, mental health professionals, and dietitians can help a teen get treatment, recover, and develop healthy eating (and exercise) habits.
To help "inoculate" kids against developing a problem in the first place, parents can take the lead by setting a good example. Be sure to:
serve and eat healthy foods in recommended portions
don't put your own body down or focus on flaws
if you're overweight, find healthy ways to achieve weight loss
make regular exercise a family affair
encourage everyone in your family to focus on their strengths