ABC’s of teenage girls – Eating Disorders
Teenagers are notorious for eating you out of house and home. They come home from school in the afternoon ravenous and don’t stop shovelling food in their face until their heads hit the pillow. However for a small portion of the population food becomes an enemy. Eating is something they need to control in order to feel in control of their lives and they develop an eating disorder (ED).
If you’re the father of a daughter you are far more likely to become the parent of somebody diagnosed with an ED. 90% of the 68,000 New Zealanders who will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime are female and the average age of onset is seventeen. In recent years however the age of those being diagnosed has begun to drop dramatically, with girls as young as ten being diagnosed with an ED.
So what is an eating disorder? Eating disorders are a form of mental illness that is often diagnosed alongside another mental health issue such as depression, anxiety, body dimorphic disorder or suicidal ideation. With strong links to low self esteem and identity issues the direct cause of an eating disorder varies from person to person. However some research shows that girls with particular personality traits, traumatic childhood experiences and even genetics can have higher chances of developing an eating disorder later in life.
While there are a wide range of eating disorders Anorexia, Bulimia and Feeding or Eating Disorders Not Elsewhere Classified (EDNOS) make up the majority of diagnoses. Each of these disorders comes with their own symptoms and side effects and should all be treated by a medical professional.
Anorexia is characterised by self starvation and has the highest mortality rate of all eating disorders. It is also one of the leading causes of mental health related deaths. One out of every hundred people who seek treatment for anorexia die as a direct result of the disease and up to twenty percent of suffers die due to complications or suicide. While not as common as other forms of eating disorders Anorexia is severe and long lasting with treatment taking years and relapses commonplace.
People with Anorexia experience extreme and often rapid weight loss and become dangerously underweight. Those who are showing signs and symptoms of Anorexia but are not underweight are more likely to be diagnosed as EDNOS. The low food intake often leads Anorexics to feel dizzy, lightheaded, drowsy and low in energy. They also begin to feel cold almost constantly and as a result their body will grow a layer of short hair over exposed skin such as their face and hands. Because the body is being denied food organs can become damaged and even fail.
Although it is often considered a disorder associated with starvation and strict diets Anorexia can also involve purging behaviour. Suffers may induce vomiting after meals, use diet pills or even abusing laxatives in order to maintain their weight loss.
While the symptoms and signs of Anorexia vary from person to person some common symptoms to be on the look out for include brittle hair, yellow skin and interruptions or the cessation of menstrual cycles. You may notice an obsession with food, cooking and rituals around eating and unusual exercising behaviours. People with anorexia can also experience swollen cheeks from vomiting, swollen joints and rapid mood swings.
Bulimia tends to be an emotionally driven eating disorder with suffers being triggered by emotional upheaval and distress. In order to feel in control, combat hard to process emotions or even feel the ‘buzz’ associated with the disorder suffers will binge on high quantities of often high calorie food in a short period of time. Feelings of guilt and remorse then set in and the person will try and counter the binge in drastic ways including vomiting, using laxatives, excessive exercise, fasting and crash dieting.
Unlike those with anorexia, bulimics don’t usually lose much weight and over time can even gain weight which fuels the cycle. Studies have suggested that there is a genetic link to bulimia with the chances of developing this disorder greatly increasing when somebody in a person’s immediate family already has it. Although it isn’t as deadly as anorexia bulimia is twice as common as anorexia and due to the fact that people who suffer are usually at a ‘normal’ weight or even slightly overweight it can difficult to notice. The good news is that bulimia treatment is often faster and has much higher success rates than anorexia treatment.
If your daughter has begun a pattern of excessive eating and then seems to avoid food for days after, leaves the table immediately after eating, seems to be exercising too much or avoids eating around others she may be suffering from bulimia. The body also has a few tells of this disorder with suffers often exhibiting oral health issues such as loss of enamel on the teeth and constant bad breath and even having sores and calluses on hands and knuckles from self vomiting behaviours.
Feeding or eating disorders not elsewhere classified is the most diagnosed form of eating disorder. A person with Anorexia or Bulimia that falls just shy of the diagnostic criteria will be diagnosed with an EDNOS. This can be something as simple as an anorexic that still experiences a menstrual cycle or a bulimic who has been engaging in purging for less than three months.
EDNOS also include people who have other eating disorders that do not fall within the bounds of other eating disorders. They are just as dangerous as other eating disorders and need to be taken just as seriously. They do the same damage and treatment can be harder to find as they are difficult to define. Because of its wide range the symptoms and signs of an EDNOS differ from person to person and recovery times and success rates also vary.
If your daughter has begun showing any signs of dangerous eating behaviours, including extreme overeating, or you are concerned about changes in appearance and rapid weight loss or gain seek treatment immediately. Eating disorders are dangerous and harmful and some suffers battle them for life. However, the sooner you get the treatment of a doctor the better as more of the damage can be reversed.
If your daughter has developed an eating disorder she hasn’t done anything wrong and it’s most likely that you haven’t either. Eating disorders are not a choice, they’re a mental health issue that needs to be addressed just so. Contact your doctor or the eating disorders association of New Zealand for support and further information.