Does Your Teen Have an Eating Disorder? (ii)

In my last post I outlined what eating disorders are and how prevalent they are within western countries, particularly Australia.  The onset of eating disorders occurs most of the time during adolescence.  For this reason it is worth taking some time to identify what the possible causes and symptoms of eating disorders could be.

It is well documented that eating disorders are far more common in western wealthy societies, where there is an abundance of food and being thin is considered attractive. While eating disorders afflict people form various ethic backgrounds across the full life span, adolescent and young adult females have a much higher incidence than other groups in society.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

There is no one single cause or source of eating disorders.  There are usually multiple factors in each particular case, with treatments focusing on multiple causes.

The overwhelming message I have learnt in my dealings with sufferers of eating disorders is: IT IS NOT ABOUT FOOD!

Like so many of these type of  illnesses the symptoms that present are often only tangentially related to the real cause of the illness.  Being able to pinpoint what the real causes is no easy matter. It is generally acknowledged that there is no one magic bullet when it comes to identifying the causes.  Each case is unique, and in most cases there are a combination of causes involving a mixture of inherent personality traits and external influences.

Listed below are some commonly found features associated with these disorders.

Personal Factors

  • More than half of anorexia sufferers have been sexually abused or experienced some other major trauma including bullying or social exclusion.
  • Low self esteem increases the chance of developing disordered eating.
  • People with bulimia may have had one or several suicide attempts and there is a high incidence of depression amongst bulimia sufferers.
  • Sufferers of eating disorders often feel their parents have high degree of control over their life and who they are.
  • A high proportion of anorexia and bulimia sufferers are perfectionists and/or high achievers.
  • Many sufferers come from family or peer environment where acceptance is based on achievement or attainment.
  • The inability to express negative emotions and a constant need to please others is common amongst sufferers.

Other common factors found in those with eating disorders include:

  • High degrees of anxiety
  • Poorly developed coping mechanisms
  • Obsessive or compulsive thoughts and behaviours
  • Family breakdown or dysfunction
  • Pressure by parents, peers, coaches, or significant others to be a certain body shape.

Culture & Dieting

The cultural influence on eating disorders is unavoidable. We live in a media saturated society that commonly associates success, beauty, and happiness with physical appearance and having an ideal body shape. For young people trying to work out who they are and how to belong in the world such a culture can be a toxic influence.

The Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria note the following cultural influences on eating disorders:

  • Cultural value placed on ‘thinness’ as an inextricable part of beauty
  • Current cultural emphasis on the need for a ‘perfect body’
  • Valuing of people according to outward appearance and not inner qualities
  • Media and popular culture’s portrayal of men and women’s shapes and bodies that are not representative of ‘real’ men and women
  • Pressure to achieve and succeed

The following statistics seem to support the above claims.

  • 50% of primary school children wanted to weigh less according to a survey of pre-adolescent Sydney children.  25% of seven to ten year olds have dieted to lose weight.
  • 4% of Australian female university students want to be slimmer even though 31% are already underweight.
  • 74% of 13,000 young Australian women in a survey wanted to weigh less. Of the young women who were already considered underweight, 30% of these still wanted to weigh less. Only 25% in the healthy weight range were happy with their weight.
  • 67% of young people envy someone else’s body, 31% feel guilty about food every day, 27% use laxatives and 21% smoke as a way to lose weight. 30% are more worried about their weight than anything else including the environment, racism, Australia or their job.
  • The chances of an active Australian woman having the same weight, height, waist and hip measurements of a shop mannequin is 1.1%, and she has no chance at all of matching the measurements of Barbie.

There are also suggestions of physical of biological factors that contribute to increased risk of struggling with eating disorders. This research however is still in its infancy.

What to Do?

Prevention

Due to the wide range of influencing factors there are no obvious prevention strategies. Adults should however be aware of some key risk factors and warning signs.

Common risk factors that adults should be aware of include:

  • Dieting
  • Poor body image
  • Low self esteem
  • Perfectionism

Common warning signs include

  • Obsession with food and / or calorie counting
  • Constant reference about body shape
  • Rapid weight loss, and / or clothing changes to hide weight loss
  • Avoidance of meals or increased secret behaviour about food

Action if You Are Worried

If you are concerned that someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder it is important to communicate your concern in a very gentle and caring manner in a safe environment.  Often your concerns will be met with anger and denial. Other times it may be relief.

Eating disorders are complex to treat and can be very dangerous to the health of those who struggle with them.  Encouraging someone you are worried about to get professional help is essential, but not always easy.

Support of family and friends is vital to someone struggling with an eating disorder. It is a big commitment to walk the journey of recovery, but an important and necessary commitment to make.

For a more thorough list of risk factors, warning signs, or how get help  go to sites like:

Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria

Centre of Excellence in Eating Disorders

The Butterfly Foundation

This post is general in nature and is not intended to provide personal medical advice.  If you have concerns please consult your local doctor or health professional.
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