Eating disorders still a problem among teens

PARKERSBURG – Eating disorders, some of which can be life-threatening, continue to plague many, especially during the teen years.

“It’s not always who we think is going to be affected. Statistics show while it is still more of a female than a male problem, we are starting to recognize more males who may be or are at-risk, particularly certain athletes trying to achieve a certain weight level. Traditionally, when we think of an eating disorder we think of anorexia or bulimia, but there is also a binge eating disorder,” said Nancy Creighton, children’s outreach liaison at Westbrook Health Services.

Creighton said with the binge eating disorder the person consumes massive quantities of highly caloric foods and as a result there is rapid weight gain.

“Parents need to be aware there are also some websites that actually encourage these negative behaviors,” Creighton warned.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an eating disorder is an illness that causes serious disturbances to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating.

Creighton said the age groups usually affected most are those 12-25 years. Anorexia is an extreme fear of gaining weight.

“They are usually on an extreme diet, and have extreme exercise behaviors. They are likely to skip meals, or eat one food then go immediately to exercise excessively afterward. They can also share symptoms of bulimia,” Creighton said, referring to the cycle of eating and purging food.

Creighton said those suffering from eating disorders may see hair loss, girls may stop having a menstrual cycle and body hair may begin to grow excessively.

“This body hair growth is because the body is trying to keep warm because it’s not getting enough food for nourishment,” she said.

She noted there are usually underlying causes for the eating disorders, and some individuals may also be depressed. In the case of binge eating, she said it may be a lack of coping skills.

“They don’t know how to express those feelings, so they may turn to food for comfort. Statistically about 50 percent of those who have eating disorders also meet the criteria for depression,” Creighton said, adding body images portrayed through movies, other media and peer pressure will sometimes spur the body image concerns.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, a nonprofit organization for the prevention and alleviation of eating disorders, nearly 24 millions people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Creighton said anorexia can be deadly, ultimately leading to the shutdown of organs, and bulimia can have long-term health effects. Some warning signs to watch for are not eating, binge eating, lots of food wrappers hidden somewhere, excessive eating followed by trips to the restroom, skipping meals and excessive exercising after eating.

“With anorexia, it can lead ultimately to organ failure, and we’ve seen young people having heart attacks; the mortality rate is about 24 percent or higher,” Creighton said. “They may want to start on a diet, but with an eating disorder it becomes an obsession,” she said.

“There is usually a mental health component with eating disorders; there are lots of emotions involved,” Creighton said.

Westbrook Health Services offers a confidential assessment form on its website its at www.westbrookhealth.com, and grant-funded speakers are available to talk to school or other groups about eating disorders. Westbrook’s 24-hour crisis line is 304-485-1725 or 1-800-579-5844. For more information on counseling services or speakers, contact Creighton at 304-485-1721, extension 141.

“Many of those suffering from eating disorders are trying to fit some preconceived notion of the ‘ideal’ body image or have been the victim of teasing by peers or family,” she said.

“Peer pressure can be a big influence over how people feel about their bodies, especially during those teen years,” Creighton said, noting it’s important to talk to kids about dieting and nutrition.

“A lot of times we remember to talk to our kids about drugs or bullying, but don’t necessarily talk to them about dieting and good nutrition. We live in a fat shaming culture. That is one of the first insults to attack someone’s personal appearance,” Creighton said.

She advised if you are concerned for your child or have noticed changes in their behavior that might indicate an eating disorder, be direct.

“Tell them you are concerned, be willing to talk about what’s happening, remind them you love them and you are always there for them and are concerned. There is a lot of stigma with any behavioral condition. Listen and try to understand,” she said.

“We also need to stop using body-centric terms as insults or banter. Even in joking and we all need to be aware of that. Have a conversation with your child about what is healthy and what healthy really looks like,” Creighton said. “We spend a lot of time in this society glorifying looks. We need to let our children know what is special and wonderful about them that goes beyond their looks.”

She also suggested talking about the unrealistic body types portrayed in models or on television and movies.

Creighton said it’s also important to encourage children to be involved in leadership activities to help build self-esteem.

“Encourage them to make healthy food choices, talk to them about exercise, be a good role model, provide healthy snacks, you need to start working on healthy lifestyles as early as possible,” she said.

Counseling is also available and there are some facilities that offer in-patient treatment of eating disorders.