How to Spot an Eating Disorder

From the WebMD Archives

May 1, 2000 (Corralitos, Calif.) -- Five million Americans suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Most of them are young women and teenage girls, although about 5% are male. Eating disorders can have devastating effects on health. As many as 1,000 girls and women die each year from the complications of anorexia.

"When it comes to adolescent eating disorders, it is usually the parents' responsibility to seek help. The girl with the eating disorder is often the last to know she is ill," says Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of training and education for the Academy for Eating Disorders.

Don't wait until the eating disorder is out of control before you seek help. Research shows that the sooner an eating disorder is diagnosed, the more effectively it can be treated. If you suspect a problem, arrange for an evaluation by a therapist trained and experienced in treating eating disorders. Dennis suggests you watch for these distinct warning signs of the two most common eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia nervosa is a highly restrictive eating pattern that results in gradual starvation. Teens developing anorexia will often:

  • cut out all sweets and snack foods, eliminate fat and meat from their diet, and begin cutting their food into small bits
  • eat in private or refuse to join the family for meals
  • obsessively count calories
  • check their weight on the scale repeatedly
  • frequently claim to be "fat"
  • exercise obsessively
  • become depressed or irritable
  • lose a lot of weight quickly
  • stop menstruating

Bulimia nervosa is a pattern of binge eating followed by vomiting, laxative abuse, or excessive exercise in an attempt to purge the body of calories. Teens developing bulimia will often:

  • secretly take large quantities of food from the pantry or refrigerator
  • spend a long time in the bathroom after meals, with the water running (to cover up the sounds of vomiting)
  • buy laxatives often
  • develop problems with their teeth and gums due to frequent contact with stomach acids
  • go through bouts of intense exercise
  • become depressed or irritable
  • maintain normal weight

Susan Chollar is a freelance writer who has written about health, behavior, and science for Woman's Day, Health, American Health, McCall's, and Redbook. She lives in Corralitos, Calif.

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