The Eating Disorder Connection

I have a big passion for children and nutrition. So I began to do some research in honor of National Eating Disorder week, February 26th through March 4th. I uncovered that according to the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, 1 of every 50 children in the U.S. will deal with eating disorders at some point in their life.

There is such a stigma around eating disorders, many of us observe children and think of obesity but eating disorders expand far beyond that. So to understand more about why children struggle with food, I reached out to Kim Tranell, Deputy Editor of Choices, an award-winning health and life skills magazine for teens.

Kim’s view on eating disorders helped me to get behind the eyes of kids and their struggles. Kim’s personal experience traces all the way back to school years as she reflected back on a friend who suffered from anorexia. Kim remembered that moment of pulling excessive loose hair from her friend’s body, which left her confused about the change in her friend. Gradual changes from the behavior of pulling away from social life, wearing bulky clothes, to food restrictions. These all went on to fuel Kim’s passion towards wanting to help other teens, and she has put her experience to good use. For the past 15 years Kim has been working with teens and health. Here’s what she had to say.

What is the main reason you have found that causes kids to have eating disorders?

There is no one cause. It’s a complex mix of biology, genes and family history as well as physical environment. It’s a complex mental disorder and physical disease that’s not to be stereotyped. Many factors come into play such as stress, bullying, weight shaming, abuse, illnesses, and much more.

How do you feel the media plays a part in eating disorders?

Media doesn’t cause eating disorders. The media has tremendous power in preventing eating disorders and we are moving forward as a culture where there is more diverse representation of body types and shapes on TV shows, magazines and movies. No amount of careful consideration or progress is going to end or prevent eating disorders entirely. We unfortunately will probably never get rid of the weight loss ads or the photo shopped-images that’s why we must supply education about media. Teach kids to recognize and call out these ideals in the media they consume and educate them as to what goes into the air brushed images they are looking at. It’s equally important to promote a positive body image and a more broad self-esteem. So stories that model kindness and acceptance. Also teach kids the social and emotional skills that will help them be resilient no matter what they consume.

What have you found to be the tipping point for kids where they finally reach out for help?

Sadly it can be really dyer before they reach out. Some suffer for years before they make that choice. They are already experiencing some pretty significant symptoms and a huge disruption of their daily happiness in life. But they do eventually reach out. Sadly too often it happens when the kids feel so broken, the disorder is all that they think about and it’s ruling their life. So it’s our job to help the tipping point happen sooner than later by recognizing the warning signs.

What are some ways we can approach our loved ones when we suspect they have an eating disorder without coming across accusatory causing them to be defensive and push back?

To answer that question I will refer back to the amazing people at the National Eating Disorder Association and what I’ve learned. So many people are afraid that saying the wrong thing will make an eating disorder worse. But there’s nothing that will make it worse, saying nothing is the biggest risk you can take. The approach is the same as any sensitive issue. You want to find a private quiet place to talk, you want to use non accusatory “I” statements, and you want to focus on the behavior you specifically observe. For example, “I noticed you didn’t eat anything at lunch today.” Or focus on the symptoms that are not about food or weight such as, “I noticed you’ve been down lately” or, “I noticed you haven’t been up for hanging out.” This will help them feel less protective about their eating disorder behaviors and help them to open up on their own. Try not to get emotional and stick to the facts. Avoid saying things like, “Just eat.” Remember that they are really suffering inside; they feel like they can’t eat. They are tortured by every mention of food.

Instead reassure them that you are there for them and offer to help them find help. Remind them that admitting to the struggle is nothing to be ashamed of, there’s no stigma and they are not alone. Eating disorders are very common because they are not a fault of any individual; they are an illness just like any other you would seek help for.

The approach all depends on where they are at in their recovery and what your relationship is like with them. The best thing you can do is keep their life humming by offering them practical daily support that doesn’t focus on the disorder, whether it be offering to take them to their appointments or helping with their homework. It’s very important to be mindful and not schedule any activities that are centered on food; holidays can be some of the toughest times because most extended family members don’t understand their eating disorder.

So the best way to show compassion is to educate yourself, learn about the disease and what they are going through and know that you can’t understand unless you’ve been through it yourself.

It’s important to understand and recognize the warning signs for eating disorders and realizing that no one sign fits rather a collection of several.

These include:

  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Food rituals including chewing each bite of food excessively
  • Hoarding or hiding food
  • Disappearing after eating
  • Excessive checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
  • Negative self-esteem
  • Dangerous dieting
  • Excessive exercising
  • Obsessing over weight
  • Personality changes
  • Obsessing over appearance

Eating Disorders are a serious debilitating medical and psychological illness and aren’t always easy to detect. People who suffer from them may be under weight, normal weight or over weight this is why it’s important to not stereotype. Eating disorders affect every race and ethnicity and the news has reported that kids as young as 5 are being diagnosed.

However there is hope through counseling and medical attention there’s an opportunity for kids to regain their health. More and more Organizations like the National Eating Disorder Association and Scholastic through Choices magazine are empowering us to become more educated in understanding the disease. So it’s time to connect and increase our awareness so we can empower our kid’s in their journey of transformation.

For more information on Kim Tranell check out her latest Choices article The Eye-Opening Eating Disorders Story Every Student Needs to Read

Harriet’s story— One brave young woman’s story

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