Every parent tries to be prepared for their children’s health issues, taking preventive measures with vaccines and doctors visits, and providing a balanced meal when possible between soccer practice and dance lessons. But what do you do when your otherwise vibrant child begins shrinking away in front of you? What happens when food becomes the enemy?
Eating disorders have become so common in the United States—particularly among affluent Caucasian women and girls—that as many as 10 million females and one million males are fighting a “life or death” battle with them, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). The association also reports that more than half of all teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use weight control behaviors that are unhealthy, such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes excessively, forced vomiting and taking laxatives.
And it’s a serious problem that, when left untreated, can turn deadly.
South Jersey’s Michelle Smith spent many years plagued by a destructive eating disorder, which she can now look back on from her position in recovery. With a husband and two young children at home, the Berlin resident entered into inpatient treatment because she was afraid she would lose her life.
“(During treatment), I was able to talk with others who were dealing with the same issues as me and the therapies were very beneficial,” says Smith, now 43. “I learned to trust the people I was with.”
Though Smith was diagnosed and entered therapy as an adult, eating disorders affect many individuals before the prime of their lives, but proper treatment can ensure that most sufferers will move to a life of recovery.
How to Spot a Problem
The main eating disorders affecting teens, which parents should be aware of before a problem starts, are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (also known as compulsive overeating). NEDA explains anorexia is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss; bulimia is a secretive cycle of binging and purging though various methods; binge eating is characterized by uncontrolled and impulsive eating of excessive amounts of food, beyond feeling comfortably full.
All of these disorders seem very different from one another, but they are similar in the sense that they stem from a person’s inability to separate emotions from actions. Teens that suffer from these disorders allow their emotions to control their eating to such a degree that they only feel comfortable when controlling their own food “rules.”
“Anorexia is usually (somewhat) easy to spot because there is obvious weight loss,” says Dr. Michael Pertschuk, from the Eating Disorders Treatment Center (EDTC) in Marlton, which offers intensive outpatient treatment for eating disorders, allowing patients to make progress while still continuing a normal life routine. “If a parent sees consistent weight loss and a sudden shift to (overly) ‘healthy’ eating there, may be reason for concern.”
Pertschuk adds bulimia is tougher to spot because the individual’s weight tends to stay within a normal range. “The behavior is almost always done in secret,” he warns.
Some telltale signs include routine trips to the bathroom after meals, long showers shortly after dinner, missing food from the pantry or refrigerator, consumption of large quantities of food in the absence of apparent weight gain. More often than not, the behavior of bulimia may go undetected for months or longer.
There is no quick fix to resolving eating disorders, but professional therapy, counseling and generous support from family and friends are important ways to guide recovery. The most important thing is to identify and address it as soon as possible, doctors say.
As of last January, South Jersey and the surrounding area had a new resource for much-needed treatment, with the opening of eating disorder clinic The Renfrew Center—the nationally renowned group’s 11th location—just off Route 295 in Mount Laurel. Drawn by the area’s demand for service, officials say the treatment center will provide a comprehensive range of services that includes day treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, individual, family and couples therapy, group therapy and nutritional and psychiatric consultation.
“Our setting is non-institutional and more conducive to healing,” says the center’s Dr. Holly Grishkat. “Our empowerment model involves the patient as an active participant in his or her own recovery. We provide a safe, nurturing community in which individuals learn to (try) new, healthier behaviors and heal.”
Registered dietitian Julie Dorfman says these disorders are extremely difficult to overcome and success rates are much higher if treatment is started as quickly as possible. “The longer this problem persists, the more difficult it is to treat,” Dorfman says.
One of the most important things Dorfman develops with patients is following a meal plan and using food journals. “Regardless of the type of eating disorder, eating too much or not enough can be helped by asking patients to document and account for everything they are consuming,” she explains. “Helping them to sense hunger and fullness and learn to listen to these feelings proves beneficial for long-term recovery.”
Along with counseling, support groups have proven beneficial for those suffering from eating disorders. Tara Simpson, director of patient care at Nutritional Health Systems in Cherry Hill, says group therapy for patients can be a helpful addition to their treatment.
“Groups allow patients to connect with others going through similar struggles,” she says. “Support groups for families affected by the disorder provide a place to learn from other families how they are coping with having a loved one struggling with an eating disorder. These groups help families gain a better understanding of the disorder and how to manage it at home.”
Amy Breslow, a social worker from Cherry Hill who works with adolescents and adults, says parents should be an integral part of the treatment plans by being involved with their child’s treatment team. “Background and familial history are important in making a diagnosis. Parental input with each provider on the treatment team is important, so the team is aware of any challenges at home. Parents can then be given the necessary tools to use at home.”
For Smith, the path to recovery was arduous, but worth it. Her advice to parents who think their child may have an eating disorder: Start talking.
“Not about numbers on a scale or the amount of calories they are eating in a day, but it’s important to talk about how they are feeling,” she says. “Tell them they are beautiful on the inside and outside. If outside help is needed, there are so many programs available to help them get started on the road to recovery.”
From the National Eating Disorder Association:
* Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type and age
* Intense fear of weight gain or being fat
* Loss of menstrual periods
* Extreme concern with body weight and shape; poor body image
* Excessive exercise
* Frequent dieting or drastic change in eating habits
* Repeated episodes of binging and purging
For more information, visit NationalEatingDisorders.org.
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 4 (June, 2012).
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