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Taking a closer look at eating disorders and disordered eating.

June 19, 2013

This blog post was co-written by Corissa Schroeder, Registered Dietitian at Teen Xpress. 

The average size of a fashion model is 5’10” and 100-120 lbs.

The average size of an average American woman is 5’4” and 140 lbs.

These statistics, along with the influence of the media, shed light on why many Americans (young people and adults) are struggling with not only eating disorders, but with disordered eating. Just how many? Currently, 13 million Americans binge eat. Ten million women battle anorexia or bulimia. One million men battle anorexia or bulimia. And the scary part is, these are just the people that we know about.

Most of us are familiar with the commonly known eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia is a disorder where someone restricts his or her food intake excessively. Conversely, people suffering from bulimia will eat large amounts of food at one time (binge) and then eliminate the food from their bodies, either through vomiting or use of laxatives. However, when talking about unhealthy eating practices, the reality is that there is a lot more to cover than just anorexia and bulimia. Disordered eating can be a precursor to these harmful diseases; however, it is not often talked about.

What is disordered eating?

Disordered eating can take shape in many forms and can be a pathway to developing eating disorders in the future. Disordered eating is more common than we may think, and sadly, is supported by our society’s culture. And because there is such a blurred line in our culture’s perspective of what’s health and harmful to our bodies, we often fail to connect the food rules, fad dieting, supplement use and negative relationship with food to the idea of “disordered eating.”

Some of the activities and products that can be associated with disordered eating are: Fad diets, dieting in general, trendy supplements, skipping meals, and cutting out carbohydrates. Disordered eating can also be characterized by having unrealistic ideals of beauty and an unhealthy perspective on what a healthy weight looks like.

Learning to look for the signs and symptoms of these disorders, and the behaviors associated with disordered eating is important, so that we can watch out for our children and teens, friends and family, and sometimes, even ourselves.

The physical signs of an eating disorder

People who suffer from anorexia can experience health problems, some of them severe, such as: extreme weight loss, dry skin, brittle hair, skeletal and muscle loss, cardiac arrhythmia, growth of fine body hair, and always feeling cold.

The physical signs of bulimia are: damaged tooth enamel, callouses on hands from self-induced vomiting, and increased use of laxatives. People with bulimia are usually at an average body weight, and often look “normal” on the outside.

The psychological signs of an eating disorder

It is also important to remember that the signs of eating disorders can be present in ways other than just physical appearance. It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to exhibit a need or desire for control. Many experts think that eating disorders can sometimes be a result of someone having a lack of control in life, even more so than a desire to be thin. The behavior of a person with an eating disorder may be inflexible and rigid with their routine, their schedule, and right down to the way their food is arranged on their plate.

When it comes to behaviors associated with disordered eating, here’s what to look for:

Labeling foods as “good” and “bad,” denial of hunger, avoidance of certain foods/food groups/calorie-containing beverages, avoidance of social events where food is served, fear of food, food and weight preoccupation, “fat talk,” knowledge of diet fads, intake of large quantity of foods in short period of time, eating rapidly until feeling uncomfortable/guilty, excessive physical activity, eating in private, irrational thoughts about food’s effect on the body, preoccupation with nutrition content of foods, inflexibility with food selection, misuse of laxatives, enemas, diuretics, stimulants, and excessive use of condiments/food mixing.

How can parents identify these risky behaviors early on?

Here are some ways to proactively monitor your child for risky behaviors associated with eating disorders and disordered eating (adapted from this New York Times article):
  • Watch for little changes (eating habits, energy labels, and other behavioral changes).
  • Listen to what your children are saying. Are they obsessing about what food to eat?
  • Schedule meals and activities. Set aside time for everyone to sit down and eat together, so that you can observe how much your teen is eating.
  • Notice new food obsessions such as: fat-free, low-calorie, no carbohydrates.
  • Act on your own instincts and check in with your kids if you feel something is amiss.
  • Communicate with your kids and keep checking in. Ask them how they are doing and to tell you how their friends are doing, too.

Next steps in finding help for someone with an eating disorder or disordered eating

If you, or someone you know, are showing signs of disordered eating, educate yourself and that person on healthy eating, appropriate exercise, and body type. The truth is, no matter how much or how little some of us eat or exercise, most of us will never be built like a model. Be aware that many of us as parents, sometimes without realizing it, pass unhealthy ideas on to our kids, who are watching everything we do and listening to everything we say. This can pre-dispose our kids to risky behaviors as well.

Our perspectives of ourselves, our eating, and our self worth are all tied up into disordered eating. However, disordered eating is something that can be changed. But for some of us, the unhealthy behaviors and thinking that come from disordered eating, can lead to anorexia and bulimia.

If you suspect that you, or someone you know, have an eating disorder, get help immediately. There are many local organizations and support groups (including those listed below) to assist people and their families with treatment and support. Look for an organization that offers a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. This type of treatment typically works best, in that it combines the expertise of a medical doctor, mental health therapist, and a dietician to help treat the disorder, while supporting the person and their family.

Let’s work together to take back our health and well being. Let’s shift the focus from “getting skinny” to “getting healthy.” And let’s do it for ourselves, and for our kids.

For support and connections to treatment visit:

The Eating Disorder Network of Central Florida

Blue Horizon Eating Disorder Services located in Orlando, FL

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