There is nothing more upsetting for us than to see a beautiful young woman riddled with insecurities regarding her body image. For many, this obsession manifests in debilitating eating disorders. While treatable, eating disorders can haunt women (and men) for the rest of their lives. According to nationaleatingdisorders.org:
Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
While eating disorders can develop at any age, they are more likely to begin in a young woman’s teens or early 20s. Statistics from the National Eating Disorders Collaborations tell us that:
- 70% of adolescent girls have body dissatisfaction
- Adolescents with diabetes may have a 2.4-fold higher risk of developing an eating disorder
- Teen girls who diet at a severe level are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within six months. This risk increases to a 1 in 5 chance over 12 months
The more you can do at home and within your daughter’s peer group to discuss and support concepts of healthy body image and positive lifestyle habits, the better. In addition to threatening overall health, eating disorders can cause infertility.
Three Main Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge
It’s essential that parents, teachers, peers, and loved ones learn to spot “eating disorder red flags.” The sooner we provide loving and compassionate support and treatment by an experienced mental health professional, the more likely we are to help our patients have successful outcomes.
There are three primary eating disorders, and each is characterized by slightly different symptoms. Paying attention to your daughter’s conversations about food and her body and noting her eating habits, exercise habits, and weight fluctuations can tell you everything you need to know about whether she has a healthy relationship with her body.
1. Anorexia nervosa
Anorexia nervosa, shortened to anorexia, is slow starvation that eventually results in a dangerously thin body. In worst-case scenarios, anorexia is fatal. Women with unchecked anorexia will begin to look like skeletons, and yet when they look in the mirror, they still see “fat” no matter how thin they are.
If your daughter has anorexia, she will begin to cut out fatty and unhealthy foods, which can seem like a “good thing” at first. However, her portions get smaller and smaller. She’ll use all kinds of excuses, like “I ate a big lunch,” or “I’m not really hungry,” to defend why she’s not eating normal amounts or passing on her formerly favorite foods.
Women with anorexia also become obsessed with exercise. Again, this can seem healthy at first but quickly manifests in unhealthy ways. They are determined to burn off any extra calories they may have ingested during the day.
Outside of the obsessive relationship with minimal food intake and exercise, physical signs of anorexia are:
- Dry skin and brittle hair
- Blotchy skin
- Continual and unhealthy weight loss
- Irregular periods or stopped periods
- Evidence of taking laxatives or diet pills
- Excess hair growth on the body
- Feeling faint, dizzy, or weak
- Moodiness and depression
- Inability to focus
Honest and heart-to-heart communication is the best way to make your daughter feel safe speaking with you about her anorexia. The support of a trusted healthcare provider is essential for anyone with an eating disorder.
2. Bulimia nervosa
Bulimia can be more tricky to diagnose at first because women with bulimia seem to eat normally. They can seem as if they have very healthy appetites. While women with bulimia share the same obsession with losing weight as their anorexic counterparts, they opt to eat what they want and then make themselves vomit to get it all back up again. Some women use laxatives instead of throwing up, and others use both methods to prevent weight gain.
Over time, reduced calories lead to the desired weight loss, and they will continue eating and purging to lose an unhealthy amount of weight. Girls with bulimia may also become heavily focused on exercise and may use periods of starvation, similar to anorexia, to keep weight off.
Signs of bulimia include:
- Taking laxatives
- Going to the bathroom immediately after meals or snacks
- Callouses or scrapes on the knuckles (from using their fingers to induce vomiting)
- Wearing away of dental enamel (your family dentist may notice signs of bulimia before you do)
- Broken blood vessels in the eye
- Not going out with friends or participating in activities she used to enjoy
Women with bulimia may also have depression, anxiety or may begin abusing alcohol or drugs.
3. Binge eating disorder
This is the most common of the three eating disorders. Unlike women with anorexia or bulimia, binge eaters eat large quantities of food in one sitting. Food is their comfort and numbing mechanism. While they suffer equally with negative body image, binge eaters feel entirely out of control. They binge at least once a week, even when they are not physically hungry.
As a result, they gain weight. If the underlying causes of binge eating aren’t addressed, most binge eaters become overweight or obese. Their binging habits cause them shame and embarrassment, which leads to self-loathing.
It can be challenging to recognize binge eating disorder because most women hide their binging from others.
- Eating large quantities of food (often junk food)
- Eating faster than normal
- Eating large amounts of food when they aren’t hungry
- Finding food wrappers and containers that were consumed in secret
If you notice the signs of an eating disorder, speak with your daughter. While we hope she’ll be honest, odds are she will be defensive or counter with arguments. Always honor your instincts. If you suspect there is a problem, there probably is, and that warrants help from both your family physician and a licensed therapist who has experience treating women with eating disorders.
If you have an eating disorder, we encourage you to seek help from your healthcare provider. If you are looking for one you can trust, schedule an appointment with us at Overlake. Hope is always on the horizon, and we look forward to helping you reclaim a positive and empowered sense of self.