Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most troubled of them all? Maybe, given a hate-hate relationship with food and body image, it’s Americans.
Destinations for Teens Clinical Director Andrew Levander said scores of people are depressed and struggling with eating disorders.
“Approximately 30 million people in the United States struggle with an eating disorder,” Levander said, noting that National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is Feb. 26-March 2. “Almost 50 percent of these people also meet the criteria for depression.”
Teens may be particularly vulnerable to eating disorders because of pressure from social media shaming.
“Some teens,” he said, “combine undereating or overeating with excessive exercise.”
Myth: Eating disorders are a choice and the eating disorder is the fault of the parent.
Truth: Eating disorders are a serious, complex biological, psychological and socially influenced disorder that causes medical, psychological, biological and relationship devastation.
“When a friend or family member is diagnosed with an eating disorder, it’s often terrifying and confusing,” said Levander, who suffered from an eating disorder as a teenager growing up in Chicago’s suburbs. “Helping your loved one recover from an eating disorder will take a lot of work from everyone involved.”
Levander said people with eating disorders often struggle with body image distortions, which can disrupt their normal activities and relationships and scuttle occupational and educational successes.
Myth: Eating disorders are all about control or are triggered by unrealistic body images portrayed in the media.
Truth: Although control issues or media images may contribute to eating disorders, there are myriad reasons for them, George Livengood LMFT, Destinations for Teens’ residential services director, explained. “Understanding people with eating disorders begins with determining why those people practice eating disorder behaviors.” He said.
Three main eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa (fear of gaining weight or becoming fat).
- Bulimia nervosa (the act of binge eating then purging or vomiting).
- Binge eating disorder (eating until uncomfortably full in one sitting).
“A family’s response to stress can influence eating disorders,” Levander said. “This is not to blame others but to shed light on potential issues. Other factors are psychological issues like poor coping skills, control issues, trauma, family trouble or social issues.”
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, data shows. A review of nearly 50 years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. For women ages 15 to 24, the mortality rate of anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death. (Arcelus, Mitchel, Wales & Nelson, 2011.)
More than 50 percent of teen girls and nearly 33 percent of teen boys admit to using unhealthy methods, including smoking cigarettes, skipping meals, fasting, vomiting or taking laxatives, to control their weight.
Tips for parents:
- Watch for warning signs. If your child disappears after meal time, has unusual food rituals, new diets, wears bulky clothes, exercises excessively eats secretively, hides food, lacks energy, changes social engagement, or makes negative self-comments.
- Listen. Livengood suggests parents take note of how their children talk about food. Is there a lot of talk about “good and bad” foods, calorie counting or fad diets? If so, a visit to a dietitian is in order; a dietitian can discuss dieting and assess whether the child has an eating disorder. Parents should also be mindful about how they themselves discuss food, weight and body image. If parents focus on such things, so will their children.
- Brace yourself. Teens may get angry when confronted or deny that there’s a problem. Encourage them to seek help (Only 10 percent of people with eating disorders receive treatment; of those only 35 percent seek treatment from a facility that specializes in eating disorders.)
- Talk. Discuss body image with your children. Be patient and don’t judge. Validate their feelings.
Destinations for Teens, serving Los Angeles and Henderson, Nevada, is a dual diagnosis and primary mental health treatment center serving teens 13-17 affected by substance abuse and/or mental health disorders. Visit http://destinationsforteens.com for details.