Around 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, many of which develop between the ages of 16 and 17. These are psychological disorders that involve extreme disturbances in eating behaviour.
As far back as I can remember, I have always had a problem with food. Something that is such an important part of daily living and shouldn’t be a problem at all, became a major problem for me. I remember getting into bed at night and counting out what I had eaten that day, if I had more than 7 pieces of food I would immediately feel sick and let down by myself, I still feel that. It’s a constant battle. Alongside this, I wouldn’t eat in restaurants, check dates on food, and ask my parents if my food was cooked properly, I even became a vegetarian for about 5 years. I still, to this day, have a major problem with eating around people, an obsession with my weight and I have to have gaps in between the food that’s on my plate. Eating disorders must be taken seriously.
Women and girls are most likely to be affected by disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia. Only an estimated 11% of sufferers are men and boys.
A teenager with anorexia will refuse to maintain a normal body weight whereas someone with bulimia will have repeated episodes of binge eating followed by compulsive behaviours such as vomiting or the use of laxatives to remove food.
Some warning signs of bulimia include:
- Being extremely occupied about weight
- Strict dieting followed by high calorie binge eating
- Overeating when distressed
- Feeling out of control
- Disappearing after a meal
- Frequent use of laxatives
Warning signs of anorexia include:
- Dramatic weight loss
- Lying about how much they have eaten
- Avoiding eating with others
- Cutting food into small pieces or eating really slowly
- Trying to hide their body under baggy clothes
Experts link eating disorders to a combination of factors such as family relationships, genetics and psychological problems. A teenager may have low self-esteem and become preoccupied with being thin. With us using a lot of social media these days we often see what we perceive to be the ‘perfect body’ which in turn, puts a lot of pressure on our children.
Sometimes, being part of a sport such as ballet, gymnastics or running, where being lean is encouraged, is associated with eating disorders in teens. In one study, researchers linked anorexia to an obsession for perfectionism alongside high personal standards.
Symptoms of eating disorders in teens can include:
- A distorted body image
- Skipping most meals
- Frequent weighing
- Extreme weight change
- Dry skin
- Erosion of tooth enamel or cavities
- Hair loss
- High interest in exercise
- Irregular menstrual cycle in females
The earlier eating disorders are diagnosed and treated, the more likely the probability of complete recovery. Many teenagers go undiagnosed until their eating disorder is at a more advanced stage because they often hide their behaviours. They may also be in denial or just completely unaware of the signs and symptoms.
Although the treatment for eating disorders may not be easy, it can be done. A combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medication can be used to help overcome bulimia. Anorexia treatment usually involves nutritional feeding, medical monitoring and psychological treatment.
If left untreated, eating disorders can lead to serious illness and in some cases, death. Eating disorders are linked to health problems such as kidney and heart disease and also loss of periods which can potentially lead to early bone loss or painful fractures.
Eating disorders can have many effects on the body. With anorexia, the body goes into starvation mode because it isn’t getting the food it needs. This can lead to:
- A drop in blood pressure
- Lanugo hair – a soft hair that can grow all over the skin
- Swollen joints and brittle bones
With bulimia, the constant vomiting and lack of nutrients can cause:
- Constant stomach pain
- Damage to the stomach and kidneys
- Tooth decay
- “Chipmunk Cheeks” when the salivary glands permanently expand through vomiting
The emotional pain of an eating disorder can too take its toll. Becoming obsessed with your weight can make it very difficult to concentrate on anything else. You may have noticed a slight change in the effort your teenager is putting in at school or home, she could be falling behind on schoolwork that you may have noticed for example. The obsession with the weight can become really overwhelming and lead to stress, depression and anxiety. This is where the therapy and counselling come in to play.
Eating disorders are very common amongst teens, especially with social media having such a massive input. Not only that, but there could also be peer pressure or bullying happening in school. Talking is an essential part of not only trying to discover if your child has an eating disorder, but in their recovery too. If they feel relaxed enough to talk to you then just sit and listen. You will know as a parent when you need to seek medical advice, and never feel alone. Remember, there is always someone else going through the same thing, the internet is full of forums and information but also so many websites and helplines you can ring to. You, as a family will get through this, one small step at a time.
Written by Kayleigh Duncan