Editor’s Note: Dear readers, this is a guest post by Aparna Komarla of Live To Dream – A youth organization focused on creative empowerment. This organization is working on a project called ‘Project X’ through which they aim to educate parents, students and educators about mental health issues that are prevalent among the youth. This article in particular focuses on Eating Disorders.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are conditions that negatively impact one’s health and emotions. They are characterized by serious disturbances in eating habits, emotional stability and weight regulation. A person with an eating disorder may start out just eating smaller or larger amounts of food, but at some point, their urge to eat less or more goes out of control. Most eating disorders involve focusing too much on your weight, body shape and food intake, leading to these dangerous eating behaviors.
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the most common eating disorders observed in young adults. Eating disorders are not a sign of weakness. We must not equate having a mental health issue with low emotional strength or resilience.
What are the types of eating disorders?
The types of eating disorders listed below are the ones most commonly observed in adolescents. People with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa tend to be perfectionists and impulsive, respectively. In many cases they suffer from a low self-esteem and are extremely critical of themselves and their bodies. These eating habits are sometimes adopted to cope with emotions or difficult experiences.
1. Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height. In extreme cases, some people with anorexia nervosa also may engage in binge eating, extreme dieting, excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, or misusing of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas. In some cases, teenagers may not show all of the symptoms and may just restrict their diet severely; this could indicate anorexia and/or the onset of it and should be taken seriously.
Symptoms of Anorexia:
- Extremely low body weight
- Severe food restriction
- Relentless pursuit of thinness
- Refusal to keep weight at what is considered normal for her/his age and height
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Distorted body image
- Self-esteem influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape
- Denial of the seriousness of low body weight
- Lack of menstruation among girls and women
Other behaviors include:
- Cutting food into small pieces or moving them around the plate instead of eating
- Exercising all the time, even when the weather is bad, they are hurt, or their schedule is busy
- Repeatedly weigh themselves
- Eat small quantities of specific foods
- Refusing to eat around other people often
- Unnecessarily using pills to urinate (water pills or diuretics), have bowel movement (enemas and laxatives), or decrease their appetite (diet pills)
2. Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia is an illness in which a person binges on food or has regular episodes of overeating and feels a loss of control. The person then uses different methods – such as vomiting or abusing laxatives to prevent weight gain. People with bulimia tend to stuff down large quantities of food very quickly, and then throw up forcefully leaving them exhausted and relieved.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa can be slightly underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese. Patients generally follow a practice of binging followed by purging. Many people don’t know when a family member or friend has bulimia nervosa because they almost always hide their binges. Since they don’t become drastically thin, their behaviors may go unnoticed by those closest to them.
Symptoms that other people can notice include:
- Uncontrollable levels of exercise
- Suddenly eating large amounts of food or buying large amounts of food that disappear soon
- Regularly going to the bathroom right after meals
- Throwing away packages of laxatives, diet pills or diuretics
Read more about the biological symptoms of eating disorders –
What causes or triggers them?
- Psychological factors – The feelings of low self-esteem or self-confidence, dissatisfaction with body image, depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness or thinking or feeling ‘not good enough’
- Personal factors – History of being teased or insulted for body size or weight, troubled personal relationships. Eating disorders are not always linked to food. Sometimes it used as a coping mechanism for intense feelings of fear, anxiety or sadness.
- Biological factors –Research to determine a genetic basis for eating disorders is ongoing
- Social factors – Norms that glorify ‘thinness’ or muscularity and narrow definitions of beauty created and perpetuated by the media and society that place immense value on the ‘perfect/ideal body’ contribute to feelings of inadequacy severely affect mindsets of adolescents.
We come across posters, advertisements, or social media content that glorify certain body images. A lot of us tend to become insecure about our physique as a result. This insecurity may affect our lives, but not always have a dangerous impact. But when someone goes to extreme harmful lengths to achieve these body images, it could indicate an eating disorder and intervention is necessary. It’s important to make a clear demarcation between habits that reflect a health-conscious or image-conscious behavior and those of an eating disorder, which are more intense.
Contrary to what is commonly believed, there are a large percentage of males dealing with eating disorders. Eating disorders are not only a ‘female’ problem’.
What are some long-term solutions we can work towards?
- Educate children or peers to feel comfortable in their own bodies
- Encourage adolescents to identify themselves for their personalities and not physical appearances.
- Teach young adults to not equate a particular body shape/size with a certain amount of value
How can we achieve this at an individual level?
Let’s talk about it openly, and not make it a taboo. Try to have conversations about the issue with family or friends to make them aware. Try talking to young siblings or relatives about these issues if they are seen to be affected by societal norms, or have an adult or professional guide them on the right path.
We should stop perpetuating these norms ourselves. We can start by giving lesser importance to norms prevalent that glorify specific representations of ‘beauty’, like being thin, for example and start by identifying ourselves and the people around us for things less materialistic – like personalities or ambitions.
It’s often observed that children or teenagers who are overweight are teased, called names or bullied. Although in some cases it’s lighthearted, being bullied for one’s weight could have a serious impact on his/her self-esteem, self-confidence and body confidence. In some cases, those taunts could have an adverse negative effect on a child’s psychology, leading to a distorted self-image, and lack of confidence and self-esteem. These children are then more vulnerable to anxiety disorders, eating disorders or even depression.
Our words could heavily impact someone’s life. We must speak and act responsibly. It is of utmost importance to be thoughtful and sensitive when we speak to one another and avoid insulting, bullying or teasing people for weight/appearance. Alternatively, if we witness an act of the sort, we should try to take steps within our reach to prevent further incidents. For example, if someone is being bullied in an institution, alerting the faculty or counselors instead of keeping quiet would help.
How do we deal with eating disorders?
Eating disorders are linked to emotions more than food. The underlying causes that spark these emotions and the emotions need to be addressed rather than dealing with the symptoms alone.
What are some solutions to the problem? What can a parent or family member do?
- A parent of family member should not force someone who is severely controlling their diet to eat certain foods or quantities of food. They should not scold/accuse the teenager about being overly conscious about their weight. Accusations and forcefulness only make children more uncomfortable, and does no actual good. What they can do, is either sit down with the child themselves, or meet a counselor to have an open conversation preferably with the guidance of a counselor, about the problem they are facing to understand why the child is altering his/her diet. Further, they may consult medical professionals.
- Eating disorders are health issues like any other, and can be treated and cured completely. We must seek help without being ashamed. Eating disorders are linked to one’s emotions, and therefore with a combination of counseling and therapy, the problem can be resolved.
- Showing or guiding children to find an outlet to express their emotions without causing harm is helpful. If a child is dealing with a lot of emotional difficulties, administering counseling for him/her to openly talk is beneficial.
- Parents or educators can help children adopt a healthy eating routine along with an exercise plan suitable to the teens’ age and health from a young age. An eating and exercise regime that satisfies health requirements and also maintains physical and mental well-being can be developed. This way, the teenager can maintain his/her health and physique, without causing harm to the body.
In teenagers especially, body confidence contributes heavily to self-esteem. Developing body confidence is important not only as a solution to those dealing with an eating disorder but is also important for those who aren’t dealing with one.
Here are some ways to build self-esteem, confidence, and body confidence:
- Participating regularly in sports, exercise activities, yoga, dance or any mode of physical exertion. Statistics have shown that children, who engage in regular physical activities, have a higher level of body confidence than those who don’t. Developing a healthy self-esteem goes hand in hand with an improved self-image. Sports often help in developing self-discipline and sticking to healthy eating habits.
- Talk positive. Avoid body shaming. Often we hear or participate in conversations with one complaining about his/her weight, and find ourselves responding with – “I’m so much fatter!”
Our thoughts influence our actions, but sometimes our actions could also affect our thoughts.
- Embrace uniqueness. Stop comparing. Body confidence should be dependent on the individual and no one or nothing else.
- Improving self-esteem and confidence. Self-esteem and confidence give us the ability to accept and develop a strong relationship with ourselves, which is the greatest armor one may possess – it doesn’t allow us to give in to taunts or prejudices, but help us find and follow our own voice.
The process of building self-esteem and confidence is very subjective. Here are some suggestions to build self-confidence:
- Environment Choose/change to a positive environment: Surround yourself with positive and motivated people.
- Negativity: Identify negative thoughts and their sources. Try to eliminate the root cause.
- Pride: Being proud of oneself isn’t a bad thing. Identify strengths and weaknesses, appreciate and pride yourself for your strengths and try to work on your weaknesses. Strive for betterment and improvement, if not perfection.
- Talents and interests: Identify talents, passions and interests. Invest your time and energy in those fields. Pursuing these talents and interests, help in channeling negative thoughts and energy.
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