By Stacey Huget
Research into the incidence and impact of eating disorders is pretty clear on at least one score. Our kids are at risk for this devastating disease.
We know that eating disorders are the most common chronic illness affecting young girls and women - and are on the rise among boys and men. We also know that while eating disorders can occur at any time in one's life, the onset of the disease is most likely to occur in childhood and adolescence.
Anyone who has ever overheard a little girl ask a friend if she looks fat, knows that problems in the way children think about their bodies begin young. Research suggests that children as young as 5 have clear associations around the concept of dieting -- that it has to do with restricting food intake, losing weight, and getting thin. One has to wonder why any 5-year old, anywhere, is thinking about diets at all.
The truth is, kids are thinking about their bodies a lot - and not always in a positive, healthful way.
Research into high school students reveals a disturbing preoccupation with body image and weight control. Nearly 40% of girls in grades nine and ten think they're too fat, including 20% of those whose weight is normal. Some three out of every ten girls in grades nine and ten are trying to lose weight. Not all of these weight loss efforts are healthful ones. Studies differ, but as many as 50% of girls and 33% of boys in their teenage years say they engage in fasting, vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, meal skipping, or even smoking in an attempt to control appetite and lose weight.
It isn't difficult to imagine how these extreme dieting practices can escalate into disordered eating. One study of 14 and 15 year old girls found that those who engaged in strict dieting practices were 18 times more likely than non-dieters to develop an eating disorder within six months, and had a 20% chance of developing an eating disorder within one year. Even girls who dieted moderately were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months than non-dieters.
The consequences of disordered eating among children and young people can be devastating - physically, emotionally, and socially.
We already know that eating disorders can trigger a raft of serious physical consequences at any age - affecting ones' skin, hair, teeth, nails, as well as ones muscular, nervous, and cardio-pulmonary functions. They can also delay or retard healthy growth and sexual development - critically important during adolescence.
Emotionally, disordered eating can wreak havoc on our kids as well - with anxiety, depression, irritability, guilt, shame, fear, mood-swings, apathy, withdrawal, a loss of resiliency, and even thoughts of self-harm.
It isn't surprising that children and youth suffering from eating disorders, weight, and body image issues frequently withdraw from school and recreational activities. We know that our kids' preoccupation with body image influences how they interact with each other, with teasing and bullying being one result. Victims of weight-related teasing and bullying have been shown to be more likely to eventually engage in binge-eating and extreme weight control behaviour. These youth relate less often, and less well, with friends. They lose interest in life in general. Kids feeling this disconnected, this overwhelmed, are vulnerable, and become more and more isolated.
Sadly, children and youth are increasingly winding up in hospitals because of eating disorders. Over the last thirty years, both the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) report marked increases in hospitalization for children and young people suffering from disordered eating.
As disturbing as the literature on eating disorders and young people is, not all the news is bad. Research does suggest that the earlier the intervention, the greater the chances are for recovery.
Promoting prevention and early intervention is a big part of what we do at the Looking Glass Foundation - on multiple fronts, at the outset of this disease, in an informed and caring way, by anyone close to kids at risk. So many people and organizations regularly encounter young people who may be at risk, but they simply don't know:
- Why and how they can play a key role
- How to recognize the signs
- How to avoid "triggering" situations or conversations (especially about dieting)
- How to talk to the issue, or intervene in an appropriate way
- Where to go for resources
- Where to refer sufferers and those at risk for help
Community engagement is what will stop the rampant escalation of this disease. We all need to care enough to pay heed to what kids say and do, what attitudes they express. We need to watch for the early warning signs of disordered eating - one of which is an excessive preoccupation with body image, weight loss, dieting, eating, and food. There's a very real chance that it isn't "just a phase", and they may not just "grow out of it".
There's a very real chance that they need our help.