Spotting an eating disorder

Quite often in magazines and health sections like this one,
you’ll see articles exhorting the average American to lose weight,
exercise and cut calories, but what happens when it goes too
far?
Quite often in magazines and health sections like this one, you’ll see articles exhorting the average American to lose weight, exercise and cut calories, but what happens when it goes too far?

Health experts advise balanced diets, high in fiber, fruits and vegetables, and low in saturated fats.

Americans who want to lose weight often ignore this information, drastically cutting calories in an effort to get slim.

But dieting and its resulting hunger are the two largest triggers of eating disorders, and their effects on young men and women can be devastating.

Just about seven percent of the population suffers from problems like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and compulsive eating according to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc., an eating disorder information service.

The number doesn’t seem large, but the number of girls ages 10 to 20 who are on the threshold of such disorders is high, and teens are particularly susceptible to these problems.

Eating disorders aren’t just a problem for girls, either. Boys involved in weight-dependent sports such as wrestling are also prone to suffer from eating disorders such as bulimia, said Lynn Kjelson, a dietitian at Hazel Hawkins Hospital in Hollister.

“We’re more educated to trigger to females with eating disorders, but boys suffer from them, too,” said Kjelson. “The signs of a problem are the same for both of them, though.”

Teens struggling with these issues, particularly anorexia, often start with signs that are innocuous or even positive at the time: Cutting back portion sizes, starting an exercise regimen or increasing their efforts at one in which they’re already engaged.

Warning signs that parents are more likely to clue in to start a bit later. As the teens progress from the early phases of an eating disorder to more severe issues, they’ll pull away from the family unit when food is involved in order to hide their consumption habits.

“They start not eating at the same time as the rest of the family,” said Kjelson. “They make excuses like having a headache or having an upset stomach. They’re always making excuses.”

When excessive weight loss sets in, teens will often begin dressing in baggy clothing to hide the process. Girls whose body weight reaches a low enough point may lose their menstrual cycles or develop a fuzzy, white down on their skin.

However, no matter how thin an anorexic girl or boy gets, they see themselves as overweight, said Kjelson, and may react with anger if others comment on their thin appearance.

Bulimia is marked more by bingeing and purging or just purging than the starvation techniques anorexic patients employ, but both carry significant health risks.

“Anorexia is the only psychological illness that people can actually die from, that causes physical, cardiovascular problems,” said Kjelson. “One of the reasons for teens to develop this could be their striving to change their body weight, but a lot of it stems from the ideal of perfection. A lot of things are going wrong in their lives, and this is one thing that they can control.”

In cases of bulimia, the idea behind the action can often be tied to weight control, but the purging involved in bulimic cases brings up more than food.

Bile from the stomach, which can strip the enamel from teeth with prolonged exposure, also creates scarring in the esophagus. As most people diagnosed with acid reflux know, this scarring can lead to a higher rate of esophageal cancer.

Compulsive eating – binges without purging – is often masked by sufferers.

“More characteristically, they’re pretty good during certain periods of the day,” said Kjelson. “I see that a lot with my obesity patients. They use the compulsive eating to substitute something. Either it’s love or comfort, or they do it out of boredom. It’s taking one thing they need and replacing it with food.”

If you suspect a loved one may be dealing with an eating disorder, please ask him or her to visit a doctor, or take the person to see one yourself.

Issues with food often have less to do with the food itself than underlying psychological issues that will require a team of care providers to sort out.

It may sound like a daunting process, but without treatment, up to 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders die. With treatment that number falls to a tenth of that portion, according to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.

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