Happy 2014. This is a time when we’re usually tired of all the holiday food, when we start talking about how we're going to stick to our New Year’s resolutions. Eating healthier and exercising more probably tops those lists. And in these first few weeks of January, my local YMCA has been teeming with cars, the exercise classes filled with eager adults wanting to shave off some of their holiday weight gain.
While these are pretty normal year-to-year promises we pledge to ourselves, I never considered the anxiety of those with eating disorders. In fact, I only pondered this recently, after literally stumbling upon some very disturbing web sites and social media posts. I found people promoting “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” lifestyles, referring to pro-Anorexia and pro-Bulimia, with content existing purely to help young girls and teens learn tips and tricks to achieve dangerous weight loss.
Let’s get the important facts straight first. Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder characterized by an irrational fear of gaining weight, with those affected severely restricting their food intake, resulting in drastic weight loss. Bulimia Nervosa (BN) is an eating disorder where people, known as bulimics, consume large quantities of food—binge eating—and then purge by vomiting or through the use of laxatives, diuretics or stimulants.
Although I knew that many young women suffer from eating disorders, I was stunned to learn how those affected could gain access to such negative support through online forums dedicated to teaching destructive practices. With hashtags such as “thinspiration” and phrases like “thinner is the winner,” those with eating disorders, which are also considered a mental illness, have a practical guidebook within the social media community. I even read one young woman’s Twitter post boasting about how she passed out in her dance class from not eating enough. And another tweeted: “All I want is to be skinny. And I'm gonna get there dead or alive, and I couldn't care less which of those options I take!”
How are such sites still abundant in cyberspace? “Unfortunately, they are out there and have been out there for a while,” says Dr. Michael Pertschuk, medical director for the Eating Disorders Unit at Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville, Pa., whose group also talks to local schools about the dangers of such sites.
As parents, I asked Dr. Pertschuk what we can do. Preventatively, he advises having regular family meals as an important measure. Additionally, parents should always pay close attention to their children’s online activity, especially if they suspect an eating disorder.
As a mother to two young daughters, this information gave me a scary glimpse into their futures. After all, the age of onset for AN is as young as pre-teen. BN often evolves after a period of AN, says Dr. Pertschuk, with about one-third of anorexics becoming bulimics.
Could the healthy food choices I teach somehow be distorted, leading them to potentially deadly eating disorders? Could the term “skinny jean” or scantily dressed pop stars be fueling the fire for young girls who are on the brink of such harmful choices?
Dr. Pertschuk says there are many potential triggers for such disorders, but emphasizing thin as attractive is particularly harmful.
“Some things are clearly detrimental, like negative comments about body size,” he adds. Although, Dr. Pertschuk admits finding a balance isn’t always easy for parents, as we certainly shouldn’t ignore a child who may be gaining weight in an unhealthy manner.
According to the National Women’s Resource Center, more than 7 million American women are affected by eating disorders each year, and 1,000 of those will die from complications of anorexia nervosa. Up to 80 percent of female college students have admitted to binge eating, a predecessor to bulimia. Ten percent of those with eating disorders are males.
To read more about the Eating Disorders program at Brandywine Hospital, go to http://www.brandywinehospital.com/EatingDisordersProgram/Pages/Eating%20Disorders.aspx or call 1-877-406-0431.
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