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Beating Eating Disorders

For some teen and pre-teen girls, food takes on a new role: It becomes the enemy. Girls in particular may worry that they are becoming fat, and flirt with an eating disorder.


Up to 10 million Americans have an eating disorder, and about 1 percent of American teens have one, according to the Nemours Foundation. Females are much more likely to develop an eating disorder than are males.

People with eating disorders fear gaining weight, desire to lose weight, and feel intensely dissatisfied with their bodies. Eating disorders are not caused by a lack of willpower or behavior, but are treatable medical illnesses, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

People with this disorder see themselves as overweight even though they are dangerously thin. The process of eating becomes an obsession, and unusual eating habits develop, such as avoiding food and meals, picking out a few foods and eating these in small quantities, or carefully weighing and portioning food, the NIMH says. People with anorexia may repeatedly check their body weight, and many engage in other techniques to control their weight, such as intense and compulsive exercise, or purging by means of vomiting and abuse of laxatives, enemas, and diuretics. Girls with anorexia often experience a delayed onset of their first menstrual period.

People with bulimia have recurrent episodes of  binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or other medications (purging); fasting; or excessive exercise, with weight fluctuations that can be caused by fasting or self-induced vomiting.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says that parents should look out for the following symptoms:
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty getting children to join you for meals
  • Preoccupation with food and counting calories
  • Signs of being unhappy with themselves or their body image
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Regularly going to the bathroom after meals
  • Discarded packaging, of laxatives, diet pills, drugs that induce vomiting
People with eating disorders often use food and the control of food in an attempt to compensate for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming, the NEDA says. For some, dieting, bingeing and purging may begin as a way to cope with painful emotions and to feel in control of one's life, but ultimately, these behaviors will damage a person's physical and emotional health.

What can you do as a parent? The NEDA offers these suggestions:
  • What are your own thoughts and attitudes about your own body?
  • Look at your dreams and goals for your children. Are you focusing too much on beauty and body shape?
  • Talk to your children about the importance of a healthy diet and moderate exercise.
  • Discuss with your children the ways that television and magazines distort the variety of human body types.