Beating an Eating Disorder

With eating disorders affecting girls at ever-younger ages, a University of Minnesota study found that a surprisingly simple tactic might help: Dine as a family.

Among 4,746 adolescents in the study, girls who ate five family meals per week had about one-fourth the risk for extreme weight control practices. The meals let parents model healthy eating habits to children, says epidemiology professor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., R.D., the study's main author. It also gives parents a chance to talk with their children.

"Since society has so much influence on adolescents because of the high prevalence of obesity and the pressure to be skinny, many girls are turning to unhealthy ways of controlling their weight," Dr. Neumark-Sztainer says. "Prioritizing structured family meals that take place in a positive environment can protect girls from destructive eating habits.

"It doesn't have to be a home-cooked meal. The idea is to bring people together," she says.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia have risen steadily to affect nearly 10 million women (and 1 million men), the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) says. Diagnoses now peak among girls ages 11 to 13.

Anorexia and bulimia can cause nutritional deficiencies, organ damage and, in rare cases, death. It's vital to recognize and treat eating disorders quickly. Treatment involves mental health counseling and nutritional and medical therapy.

Although both anorexia and bulimia are much more common in girls than in boys, about 10 percent of people affected by eating disorders are male, the NEDA says. Girls with eating disorders tend to focus more on their weight than do boys.

The sports connection

Both girls and boys are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder in certain sports that emphasize thinness or that have weight restrictions, the NEDA says. For girls, the critical sports are gymnastics, ice-skating and ballet. For boys, the sports include gymnastics, running, bodybuilding, rowing, wrestling, ballet and swimming. Males who are jockeys also are at higher risk for an eating disorder.

What to look for

Girls with anorexia:

  • Intensely fear being fat.

  • Feel fat despite extreme thinness because of a distorted body image.

  • Are typically perfectionists with low self-esteem.

  • Eat very little, count calories and may weigh portions.

  • Often say they are vegetarians.

  • Often lose weight rapidly.

  • Deny feeling hungry and avoid eating in front of others.

  • May exercise compulsively.

  • Withdraw from social activities.

Girls with bulimia:

  • Eat huge amounts within hours, then "purge" their bodies by taking laxatives or vomiting.

  • Often make excuses to go to the bathroom right after meals.

  • May eat abnormally large amounts of food without gaining weight.

  • May have average or above-average weights.

  • Often have pitted or eroded tooth enamel from stomach acid in the mouth after vomiting.

  • May appear to have swollen cheeks, from enlarged salivary glands.

  • Withdraw from social activities.

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