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When Teens Obsess About Their Weight

Could Your Teen Have an Eating Disorder?

With the fashion and entertainment industries' super-thin stars serving as role models, it's no wonder that many young girls don't like what they see in the mirror. The American Academy of Pediatrics, reporting on a survey of 5th- through 12th-grade girls, found that the majority were dissatisfied with their body shape. Two-thirds wanted to lose weight, even though less than a third were actually overweight!

Chronic dieting can be the first step on the road to eating disorders. Pediatricians report seeing increasing numbers of teens with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

Girls are especially vulnerable when they reach adolescence as their body shape changes and becomes more rounded. Although girls are 10 times more likely to develop eating disorders, some boys engage in dangerous dieting, too. Often it's because they want to reach a particular weight for a sport such as wrestling or gymnastics. Others may try to bulk up to earn a spot on the football team. And female athletes often diet, too.

Teens and Food

Don't get into power struggles with your kids over what and how much they eat. Instead, serve nutritious meals and let them make choices from the foods you offer. Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy snacks instead of junk food.

Promote Healthy Eating

Teens often eat away from home -- lunch at school, a snack at a friend's -- so it's hard for you to know what or how much they're consuming. That's why you should fit family dinners into your schedule as often as possible. The ritual not only promotes family communication, but gives you more opportunities to observe your children's eating habits.

Don't comment on your child's eating habits though, or on her weight. If you think your child has a weight problem, seek outside help from a healthcare professional who can assess your teen and recommend an intervention plan.

Who's at Risk?

There's no single cause for eating disorders. But here are some facts we do know about the disease:

White adolescent girls are four times as likely to diet as black girls, according to a 1997 study by the University of South Carolina School of Public Health. Genetics appears to play a role, too, as do family dynamics. Kids with certain personality traits, such as a tendency to perfectionism, also are more vulnerable.

Signs Your Teen Might Have an Eating Disorder

"Dieting and weight concerns are so prevalent in our culture that they often exist, to some degree, in many normal children," says Diane Mickley, M.D., director of the Wilkins Center for Eating Disorders in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Dr. Mickley, a past president of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association, points out that many teenage girls also become vegetarians. Eating less meat and more grains and vegetables are laudable goals for all of us. But how can parents tell whether teens' positive eating changes are being taken to extremes?

Dr. Mickley says you should be concerned if:

  • Your daughter's menstrual periods stop.
  • Your child successfully meets her weight goal but then keeps upping the goal.
  • Her friends express concern. Girls with eating disorders have a distorted body image and continue to feel fat even when their friends don't share that view.
  • She is secretive or defensive about dieting. "Normal dieters do not tend to make excuses for not eating," says Dr. Mickley, nor do they get angry at concern that they're losing too much weight.
  • Your daughter's worries about her weight increase even though she has successfully lost pounds. Kids with eating disorders come to fear fatness.

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening condition in which an obsession with thinness leads to severe dieting and excessive weight loss. With bulimia nervosa, the individual stuffs herself with food and then purges her body by vomiting or abusing laxatives and/or diuretics.

Teens who are anorexic may:

  • Become obsessed with fat and calories.
  • Exercise compulsively.
  • Suffer from mood swings, depression, or anxiety.
  • Feel out of control.
  • Lie about food.

A teen who is bulimic can have some of the same symptoms as an anorexic, but she may not lose much weight and may actually appear healthy. Other common signs of bulimia are hoarding food and using the bathroom frequently after meals.

A third type of problem -- binge eating disorder -- leads to obesity, because the teen overeats as a means of coping with psychological problems but doesn't purge afterwards.

Teens who suffer from these disorders have complicated problems and need multi-faceted treatment which may include psychotherapy, behavior modification, nutrition counseling, medications, and sometimes even hospitalization.

Weight Loss in Teen Athletes

Both boys and girls in certain sports -- such as gymnastics, cheerleading, track, wrestling, figure skating, swimming, or ballet -- may feel pressure to lose weight or body fat, which can lead to unhealthy weight-control practices.

Quickie weight-loss attempts may lead student athletes to use diet pills or laxatives, cut back on water intake, or exercise too intensely. At a time when they need extra nutrients from food to maintain their stamina, teens may instead be putting considerable stress on their bodies and hurting their athletic performance.

If your teen's coach encourages your child to lose--or gain--weight, talk to him about what he thinks is a safe plan for doing it. You may want to seek advice from your healthcare provider, too.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends undertaking weight reduction during the off-season so there's less risk of over-stressing the body. If you believe that the coach is demanding rapid weight loss, intervene immediately.

Don't hesitate to seek help if you suspect your child is developing an eating disorder.

For information on eating disorders or referrals, check with your pediatrician.

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