Is Your Teen Developing an Eating Disorder?
When Nancy Clark became a sports nutritionist, she thought she was going to be counseling athletes about sports nutrition. Instead, she found her one-on-one counseling sessions centered on eating disorders.
"The same characteristics it takes to be an athlete – you need to be dedicated, a hard worker – are those same characteristics that are needed to be anorexic," Clark says. "It's hard to be anorexic. It's hard to be so dedicated, compulsive and disciplined."
How Do Eating Disorders Start?
For some teens too, the drive for perfection can sometimes take a wrong turn, beginning as disordered eating and ending with a full-blown eating disorder.
Disordered eating is sometimes referred to as the gateway "drug" to an eating disorder, just as marijuana is often called the gateway drug to harder drugs. "Disordered eating is under-consuming," Clark says. "It's often not eating much during the day and then getting carried away with frozen yogurt at night time. It's a very limited diet."
Clark says eating disorders begin with what seem like harmless disordered eating habits. Maybe a teenager insists on eating turkey sandwiches every day or having meal replacement drinks. Maybe they suddenly decide to become a vegetarian, which Clark says may be just a politically correct way of eliminating a food group perceived to be fattening. Other red flag behaviors can include social withdrawal and constant complaining about body weight.
Empower Teens With the Truth About Diets
Debra Waterhouse, the author of Outsmarting the Female Fat Cell (Warner Books, Reprint, 1994), says teens are inspired when they learn the secrets behind the dieting industry and how dieting weakens teens psychologically and physically. "What I've discovered is when they think about it and get all the pieces together, they get sort of angry," Waterhouse says. "They say, 'Why are we caught in this trap?' and 'This is ridiculous, women are stronger than this and can break free.' Overall the theme is they are going to be the generation to make it a different place for women, where we can eat with pleasure and with freedom and that all different body shapes and sizes are OK."
Waterhouse believes the dangerous dieting game became part of pop culture starting in the 1960s. She says women thought it would be different to get away from the maternal bodies of their mothers and go instead for an almost boyish figure as a way to enter the man's world.
10 Tips to Prevent Eating Disorders
So how do you help your teen break free from the food obsession and live a healthy life of moderation?
Unfortunately, losing fat the smart way can be difficult. Experts say your teen will benefit from your support. The following tips could prevent a teen with disordered eating patterns from slipping over the thin line and into an eating disorder:
- Teach low-fat cooking skills.
- Let the teen eat when she is hungry.
- Limit television.
- Encourage a day of rest.
- Serve balanced meals.
- Don't always forbid fast food.
- Encourage informal, moderate exercise.
- Emphasize fruits and vegetables and fiber.
- Don't count calories.
- Don't obsess in front of the mirror.