Chunky babies are so adorable that most people simply want to pinch their chipmunk cheeks, but chunky children are deemed at-risk for becoming obese adults. Many of these young kids are placed on a “diet” and are restricted from what they can eat. What is wrong with this picture? If parents are not careful, these children may develop eating disorders.
Anorexia Nervosa, commonly known as anorexia, is one of the three different types of eating disorders. Children and teens with this disorder have a distorted vision of themselves- when they look in the mirror they see a fat person, but in reality they are very thin. What begins as a simple diet to lose a few pounds, spirals out of control.
Anorexics become so obsessed with dieting that the disease develops into much more than simply limiting food intake; it grows into a control issue. These children feel they can monopolize their body weight, but in reality they feel as if their lives are out of control. Before they know it, their dieting is unmanageable and they can not find a way out because if they eat they feel they will get fat. They also begin to feel uncomfortable after eating. Sometimes anorexics can become bulimic. ( I will address bulimia in part 3 of this series).
Anorexia tendencies can begin to propagate when a major stressor develops in a child’s life. Divorce, death, changing schools or abuse can lead to eating disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly one in twenty-five girls will develop anorexia at some point in their lives, and they will remain in denial about their problem until they begin to experience serious health-issues or a loved one intervenes.
Parents need to educate themselves about the symptoms of anorexia. Many behaviors occur at a very early age, long before the disease develops. Some of these traits are anxiety, depression, perfectionism, or being highly self-critical. As children age and their body begins changing in the prepubescent stage, some begin to diet and continue dieting even when they are thin and emaciated.
Anorexia is a very secretive disease. Anorexics have a way of disguising their disease by pushing their food around the plate at mealtime, or putting food in their mouth and then spitting it in their napkins, and wearing loose clothing.
Karen Madigan, formerly of Beaumont, TX is a recovered anorexic. Karen told me that when she was growing up, she lived in a very controlling household. Her family stuffed their feelings, and she was never taught how to recognize and share her emotions. Karen also stated that her disease was more than just about physical appearance; it was about feelings of not measuring up or fitting in, which stemmed from her childhood.
Karen said that when she was getting ready to graduate from college, she became very stressed out because she was about to jump out in the real world and would have to be in control of everything. Since she came from such a rigid, strict home, she was fearful of becoming independent. What began as a diet turned into anorexia- something Karen felt she could control. She learned to focus on her disease so she would not have to deal with life. Before she knew it, Karen was completely lost in the malady.
Karen also shared with me some of her eating patterns while anorexic. She said she would eat real slow and was afraid to eat in front of people. Karen became very rigid with the things she ate, eating the same thing everyday. She became obsessed with reading nutrition labels on everything and counting calories. Karen weighed and measured every bit of food. If the scale said the meat was 3 ounces, Karen would eat only 2. She ate peas everyday and even counted how many she ate. Karen exercised excessively and would run in dangerous neighborhoods. She said it was as if she was trying to “out-run the insanity.”
Once Karen finally entered a treatment facility for her bulimia, she weighed only 72 pounds and was near death. Karen is 5 feet, 7 inches tall. She is now very physically fit, eats healthy foods and maintains an active lifestyle as an Occupational Therapist Assistant. Karen has a zest for life, but it took her years of relapsing back into anorexia and then becoming bulimic and alcoholic. She has been free from eating disorders for 13 years, alcohol 15 plus years, and lives happily at a comfortable 135 pounds (people still tell her she is too thin). Karen has worked very hard to get to where she is today. She now speaks out about her eating disorder in order to try and help others and continues her 12-step program.
Not all stories have a happy ending, though. Anorexia can be fatal, as it was with the death of another Karen- Karen Carpenter in 1983. She was one of the first entertainers known to have lost her life to anorexia. Sadly, many have followed in her footsteps.
If parents recognize these tendencies early, they may be able to get their children help before the disease becomes out of control. Make sure the dance studios you enroll your children in or gymnastics coaches they may have do not overemphasize body weight. Do not put down your children with harsh words like, “That outfit makes you look fat.” Also, do not idolize thin models and compare your child to them by saying, “I wish you looked like that,” or “You can look that good, too.”
Eat healthy meals together and do not make your children clean their plate. Teach youngsters that food is fuel for their body, not something the whole day revolves around.
Keep family time a high priority in your life, teach kids to communicate their feelings and provide them with a safe and secure environment as they grow up. Maybe that will make a difference. No parent wants their child to suffer what Karen (Madigan) describes as a “slow suicide.”
Houston’s eating disorder facility Walker Wellness Center is located at 5100 Westheimer Road and the phone number there is 877-899-7254.