Eating Disorders

In the United States, as many as 10 in 100 young women suffer from an eating disorder. However, eating disorders affect both males and females at many stages in the life cycle. Overeating related to tension, poor nutritional habits and food fads are relatively common eating problems for youngsters. The term “eating disorders” encompasses a group of problems that fall into two broad categories overeating (binging), and under eating (anorexia).

Some of the most common causes of eating disorders are:

Environmental factors – These factors include social norms of beauty and the influence of media on people’s perception of what is beautiful. The best example would be Hollywood’s unrealistic standard of beauty that makes the public feel incredibly inadequate and dissatisfied and forces people to strive for an unattainable appearance.

Family relations – Many studies have showed that many women who experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child end up with eating disorders as a method of punishing oneself due to the feeling of being worthless, or to strive to be “good enough” so they can finally receive the love and acceptance they lacked during childhood. Research from a family systems perspective indicates that eating disorders stem from both the adolescent’s difficulty in separating from over-controlling parents, and disturbed patterns of communication. When parents are critical and unaffectionate, their children are more prone to becoming self-destructive and self-critical, and have difficulty developing the skills to engage in self-care giving behaviors.

Biological/Genetic factors – Research has shown that many people who suffer from an eating disorder are highly correlated with having depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. Depressed, obsessive compulsive and bulimic patients were found to have lower than normal serotonin levels. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, are released as you eat. Also, damage to the hypothalamus can result in abnormalities in temperature regulation, eating, drinking, sexual behavior, fighting, and activity level

Addiction – With addiction and eating disorders there is a need to discharge affective experience through action rather than feeling or being able to talk about them, an inability to regulate tension, the need for immediate gratification, poor impulsive control, and a fragile sense of self. Often in those with eating disorders and substance abuse problems drugs or alcohol is used in attempts to avoid binge eating.

Parents frequently wonder how to identify symptoms of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. These disorders are characterized by a preoccupation with food and a distortion of body image. Shame and secrecy often accompany eating disorders, and the problem may go undetected for years. Recognition of these disorders is necessary to begin the long process of treatment.

Unlike other addictive or habit problems, food cannot be avoided, and recovery requires developing a healthier relationship to food and to one’s own body, as well as improved coping skills. With comprehensive treatment, most teenagers can be relieved of the symptoms or helped to control eating disorders. The child and adolescent psychiatrist is trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat these psychiatric disorders.

Treatment for eating disorders usually requires a team approach; including individual therapy, family therapy, working with a primary care physician, working with a nutritionist, and medication.

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