Source: Connect with Kids
“I think that it definitely had something to do with my mom and my sister talking about different diets, and at that age …you don’t understand everything that they are discussing and the way that they’re discussing it, and in my head I blew it up as something bigger.”
– Shay Fuell, recovering anorexic
About 2.5 million Americans suffer from anorexia. Shay Fuell was only nine years old when the fixation began.
“(I) was starting to have body-image issues and looking in the mirror sideways and just pinching my skin seeing if there was fat there,” she says.
A few years later, she was 5-feet-2 and weighed 78 pounds.
“Literally, it becomes [a part of] every thought … in your head,” she says. “You can’t think about anything else. You can’t concentrate on anything. You can’t even hold a conversation with somebody because you are thinking about the last meal that you ate or what you should be doing to work out or how you’re going to be able to throw up without anybody knowing.”
According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the number of girls under the age of 12 hospitalized for eating disorders has more than doubled since 1999.
“I don’t know if they’re actually developing them younger or if it’s that parents are having a greater awareness of what’s going on with their children,” says Brigette Bellott, Ph.D., a psychologist and eating disorder specialist.
What’s going on, typically, is depression, children obsessed with eating or overly anxious about their weight and their appearance.
“Things to watch,” says Bellott, “what do they believe about their own body? I mean I would ask that: “What do you think about your body, how do you feel about it?”
Experts say it’s crucial for parents to catch the first signs of an eating disorder because the fatality rate for anorexic women is 10 to 15 percent.
“Some of them [die] through malnourishment, some through suicide,” says Mary Weber-Young, L.P.C. “It is the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.”
Shay wasn’t diagnosed until she was 14. It took five difficult years of treatment before she had fully recovered.
“It was an addiction,” she admits. “It was an obsession.”
Tips for Parents
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) describes an eating disorder as “an obsession with food and weight.” The two main eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (an obsession with being thin) and bulimia (eating a lot of food at once and then throwing up or using laxatives; also known as ‘binging and purging’). Who has eating disorders? According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders:
Eight million or more people in the US have an eating disorder.
Ninety percent are women
Victims may be rich or poor
Eating disorders usually start in the teens
Eighty-six percent of victims report onset by age 20
Eating disorders may begin as early as age 8
Seventy-seven percent report duration of one to 15 years
Six percent of serious cases end in death
It’s not always easy for parents to determine if their daughter or son is suffering from an eating disorder. But the AAFP does list the following warning signs for anorexia and bulimia:
Unnatural concern about body weight (even if the person is not overweight)
Obsession with calories, fat grams and food
Use of any medicines to keep from gaining weight (diet pills, laxatives, water pills)
The more serious warning signs can be more difficult to notice because people with eating disorders often try to hide the symptoms:
Throwing up after meals
Refusing to eat or lying about how much was eaten
Not having periods
Increased anxiety about weight
Calluses or scars on the knuckle (from forced throwing up)
Denying that there is anything wrong
If left untreated, people with eating disorders can suffer some health problems, including disorders of the stomach, heart and kidneys; irregular periods or no periods at all; fine hair all over the body, including the face; dry scaly skin; dental problems (from throwing up stomach acid); dehydration.
Eating disorders can be treated. The first step is getting back to a normal weight, or at least to the lower limits of the normal weight range, according to Dr. Rex Forehand, a psychologist at the Institute for behavioral Research at the University of Georgia. But more needs to be done, Dr. Forehand says. “Attitudes and beliefs about body weight and eating patterns must also be changed. A comprehensive intervention may be necessary.”
Treatment may require hospitalization. The physician may recommend a dietician. For both anorexics and bulimics, family and individual counseling may be helpful.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
American Academy of Family Physicians
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders