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Food is a very emotional part of our lives. What we eat when we’re happy is different from what we eat when we’re upset. In a time when emotions, along with what seems like everything else, are in turmoil, it makes sense that a teen’s relationship with food can get complicated.

What are Eating Disorders?

Mayo Clinic defines eating disorders as follows:

Eating disorders are serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively impact your health, your emotions and your ability to function in important areas of life. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

Mayo Clinic also goes on to say:

Eating disorders are diagnosed based on signs, symptoms, and eating habits.

Healthline lists these signs as:

  • dramatic weight loss
  • concern about eating in public
  • preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, or dieting
  • complaints of constipation, cold intolerance, abdominal pain, lethargy, or excess energy
  • excuses to avoid mealtime
  • intense fear of weight gain or being “fat”
  • dressing in layers to hide weight loss or stay warm
  • severely limiting and restricting the amount and types of food consumed
  • refusing to eat certain foods
  • denying feeling hungry
  • expressing a need to “burn off” calories
  • repeatedly weighing oneself
  • patterns of binge eating and purging
  • developing rituals around food
  • excessively exercising
  • cooking meals for others without eating
  • missing menstrual periods (in people who would typically menstruate)

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Mayo Clinic defines this particular eating disorder as follows:

Anorexia (an-o-REK-see-uh) nervosa — often simply called anorexia — is an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives.

To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia usually severely restrict the amount of food they eat. They may control calorie intake by vomiting after eating or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas. They may also try to lose weight by exercising excessively. No matter how much weight is lost, the person continues to fear weight gain.

Anorexia isn’t really about food. It’s an extremely unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia, you often equate thinness with self-worth.

Signs of anorexia could be avoiding food, disappearing quickly after a meal, eating very little, excessive exercise or even dismissed comments about weight or not eating.

What is Bulimia Nervosa?

Mayo Clinic defines bulimia nervosa as follows:

People with bulimia may secretly binge — eating large amounts of food with a loss of control over the eating — and then purge, trying to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way.

To get rid of calories and prevent weight gain, people with bulimia may use different methods. For example, you may regularly self-induce vomiting or misuse laxatives, weight-loss supplements, diuretics or enemas after bingeing. Or you may use other ways to rid yourself of calories and prevent weight gain, such as fasting, strict dieting or excessive exercise.

If you have bulimia, you’re probably preoccupied with your weight and body shape. You may judge yourself severely and harshly for your self-perceived flaws. Because it’s related to self-image — and not just about food — bulimia can be hard to overcome.

Signs of bulimia are similar to those of anorexia: disappearing from meals quickly, avoiding food, being very aware of weight or appearance. It may also include things like calluses on the top of fingers–a sign of repeated throwing up.

What is Binge-eating Disorder?

Mayo Clinic defines binge-eating disorder as:

Binge-eating disorder is a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food and feel unable to stop eating.

Almost everyone overeats on occasion, such as having seconds or thirds of a holiday meal. But for some people, excessive overeating that feels out of control and becomes a regular occurrence crosses the line to binge-eating disorder.

When you have binge-eating disorder, you may be embarrassed about overeating and vow to stop. But you feel such a compulsion that you can’t resist the urges and continue binge eating.

While this is an eating disorder different from the above two, some signs may be the same, such as worrying about amounts of food or weight. Signs of binge-eating disorder can be eating a lot, or, conversely, avoiding food so as to not overeat.

How do Eating Disorders Effect the Body?

Far from being just the cause of weight gain or loss, the food you take in determines how well your body functions. Refusing to eat as much as you need to, then, can cause problems in several ways for the body. The National Eating Disorders Association gives the following examples and a few explanations of each as ways eating disorders can negatively impact the body.

Cardiovascular System

Consuming fewer calories than you need means that the body breaks down its own tissue to use for fuel. Muscles are some of the first organs broken down, and the most important muscle in the body is the heart. Pulse and blood pressure begin to drop as the heart has less fuel to pump blood and fewer cells to pump with. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower. … Purging by vomiting or laxatives depletes your body of important chemicals called electrolytes. The electrolyte potassium plays an important role in helping the heartbeat and muscles contract but is often depleted by purging. Other electrolytes, such as sodium and chloride, can also become imbalanced by purging or by drinking excessive amounts of water. Electrolyte imbalances can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death.

Gastrointestinal System

The National Eating Disorders Association shows that things like gastroparesis, constipation, a stomach or esophagus rupture, or inflammation of the pancreas can result from eating disorders. These can come from simply refusing to eat enough, or the consistent purging. Each of these can also have negative effects of their own. For example, they say:

When someone makes themselves vomit over a long period of time, their salivary (parotid) glands under the jaw and in front of the ears can get swollen. This can also happen when a person stops vomiting.

Neurological System

Although the brain weighs only three pounds, it consumes up to one-fifth of the body’s calories. Dieting, fasting, self-starvation, and/or erratic eating means the brain isn’t getting the energy it needs, which can lead to obsessing about food and difficulties concentrating. … The body’s neurons require an insulating, protective layer of lipids to be able to conduct electricity. Inadequate fat intake can damage this protective layer, causing numbness and tingling in hands, feet, and other extremities. … If the brain and blood vessels can’t push enough blood to the brain, it can cause fainting or dizziness, especially upon standing.

Endocrine System

The body makes many of its needed hormones with the fat and cholesterol we eat. Without enough fat and calories in the diet, levels of hormones can fall, including [the] sex hormones estrogen[s] and testosterone [and] thyroid hormones. … Lowered sex hormones can cause menstruation to fail to begin, to become irregular, or to stop completely. … Lowered sex hormones can significantly increase bone loss (known as osteopenia and osteoporosis) and the risk of broken bones and fractures. … Over time, binge eating can potentially increase the chances that a person’s body will become resistant to insulin, a hormone that lets the body get energy from carbohydrates. This can lead to type 2 diabetes. … Without enough energy to fuel its metabolic fire, core body temperature will drop and hypothermia may develop.

Other Functions of the Body

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, an eating disorder can also lead to dry skin and brittle hair. Prolonged dehydration can lead to kidney failure. Inadequate nutrition means the body isn’t able to sustain and repair parts of itself, including blood cells. A lack of red blood cells and adequate iron in a teen’s diet can lead to anemia. Lack of adequate nutrition to continue production of white blood cells also leads to the body not being able to fight off disease and infection as well.

How Does a Teen Get to This Point?

When a big issue is brought up, it can often feel like the ground gives out from under you. It can feel this way for both the teen going through the issue, and the parents and family fighting it right alongside them. The question of ‘how did we get here’ can feel like a weight on your shoulders, and a hole in your gut. Knowing how to recognize the path can help you start to find your way back if you’re already lost in the woods. If you don’t yet realize your teen is on this path, a trusted adult seeing the path markers ahead of time can help your teen turn around before things get worse.

Mental Health and Body Image

Body image and mental health are two different things, but they are very closely tied–especially through the teenage years. While it’s easy to call to mind a picture of a teenage girl when talking about these issues, the fact is that they effect both boys and girls, men and women.

Don’t automatically assume your teen boys aren’t at risk. Just because they’re quieter about what they think of their bodies or weight, doesn’t mean they’re not struggling. While it may not be in the same way as your teen girls doesn’t mean it’s any less real and serious.

What Voices are They Listening to?

We all have voices that chatter in our ears that we need to work on this or that. These voices aren’t necessarily bad–it’s not bad for us as people to continue wanting to grow and improve ourselves. These voices can easily become too much and too loud, however. Especially when they’re amplified by outside sources. What outside voices is your child hearing about their appearance? Is it that they need to be skinnier or more muscular? What feature looks good or doesn’t? Is it the voices of the sensationalized pictures of thin women or muscular men that no one will live up to because those photos are so altered?

Or are the voices they’re listening to those of someone that loves them? That tells them they’re wonderful as they are? That not overstuffing yourself and exercising is good, but to not push it too hard. Voices that say those photos are altered beyond all reason, and the people you see on TV have entire teams behind them, making them look like that. That cultural views of beauty will always change, and so often ‘beautiful’ is synonymous with ‘unhealthy’ in one way or another, and why ‘healthy’ is so much more important.

Stress and a Feeling of Control

What stressors is your teen dealing with? How much schoolwork is on their plate? Are they struggling with friends or significant others? The teenage years are a time when it is very easy to feel like you don’t have control over most things in your life. Having something to control, then–something like how much food you’re eating, or purging the food from your stomach–can be a sort of coping mechanism. “I’m failing classes and fighting with my friends, but I can control this, at least.”

How Does the Wellness Way Help?

The human body works like a Swiss watch–every mechanism impacts the others. The Swiss watch only works well when every part is in calibration and functioning correctly. What happens if the watch isn’t working correctly? It’s best to find someone who knows how the watch is supposed to work and that can fix it.

The good news is that it’s not complicated to fix your teen’s body. The human body is constantly striving for wellness and doesn’t make mistakes. Because what we’re taught about food and how the body works is incorrect, however, the way we try to address it doesn’t work the way we’d hope. This can lead to frustration and desperation. Learning how the body works and how to get it to a place of health and proper function is important in helping your teen regain their health. Your mind, brain, and body do not work independently of each other.

Mental health, too, is impacted by how the Swiss watch is working. Getting your teen’s body to a place that it can impact their mind in a positive way is important in helping them make decisions that choose and promote health. This isn’t complicated, but it takes a mental shift.

Food is fuel for your body. That’s why eating disorders wreak such havoc. You’re depriving a car of gas and expecting it to run well. Having the right perspective of food is important in regaining and keeping your health. Is your teen consistently taking in allergens that put stress on their immune system? What deficiencies is your teen struggling with? Are they regularly taking in sugar, dairy, or other inflammatory foods? Our Wellness Way nutritionists can help address the right way to eat to take care of your teen’s body and keep them healthy.

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