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Understanding Eating Disorders in Teens

Eating disorders are not uncommon among teens. Take "Kerri" (not her real name) for example. Upset with a sudden weight gain, the 15-year-old forced herself to throw up after eating her school lunch. It seemed harmless. After all, most of the kids at her lunch table had done it before, and they seemed OK.

Then, after doing it five times, and then 10, Kerri had a new ritual of vomiting right after eating. She did it at school and then again at home. No one knew -- until Thanksgiving. She had eaten more than usual and told her parents she felt sick. She tried to vomit but couldn't even gag. Suddenly, there was a tap on the bathroom door. Kerri's parents were standing outside the door, asking how long she'd been throwing up her food.

"Mason," 14, was also obsessed about his weight. Short and chunky most of his life, Mason had a growth spurt, growing 10 inches in one year. Now tall and thin, he was determined to never to be "the fat kid" again. Mason hated throwing up. So, he started eating salads with no dressing, running miles each day, and taking laxatives to keep his weight down.

It worked. He looked trim and athletic. But he felt exhausted, fatigued, and irritable. In the middle of the night last winter, Mason became violently ill with stomach cramps and a high fever. His doctor admitted him into the hospital and began running tests to figure out his mystery illness.

Weight obsession affects millions of teenagers today, especially girls. At any given time, one out of every seven women has or is struggling with an eating disorder. One study a few years ago found that 36% of adolescent girls – more than one out of every three -- believed they were overweight while 59% were trying to lose weight.

More than 90% of people with an eating disorder are girls. Teenage boys, though, also have body image concerns. Many boys strive for the perfect body by dieting or by doing compulsive exercise.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are psychological disorders that involve extreme disturbances in eating behavior. A teen with anorexia refuses to stay at a normal body weight. Someone with bulimia has repeated episodes of binge eating followed by compulsive behaviors such as vomiting or the use of laxatives to remove the food.

Anorexia nervosa affects as many as one in every 100 females. Teens with anorexia fear gaining weight and are at least 15% below their ideal body weights. They believe the main gauge of self-worth is their body image.

Experts believe many American girls are bulimic and have kept the problem a secret. Bulimia often starts in the late teens and early adulthood. People with bulimia go through cycles of eating enormous amounts of foods followed by purging by vomiting, using laxatives, or diuretics or hours of aerobic exercise.

Warning signs of bulimia include:

  • Extreme preoccupation about being overweight
  • Strict dieting followed by high-calorie eating binges
  • Overeating when distressed
  • Feeling out of control
  • Disappearing after a meal
  • Depressed moods
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Frequent use of laxatives or diuretics
  • Excessive exercising
  • Irregular menstrual cycles

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