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Experiencing feelings of self-consciousness or mild dissatisfaction with aspects of one’s own body is a relatively normal. If this state persists, and body image becomes a constant preoccupation for young people, they may be a high risk for developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders are usually characterised when people display unhealthy or erratic eating and exercise patterns. Eating disorders can severally impact quality of life, and if not addressed in the early stages can develop into a life-long and life-threatening illness.

Signs this might be a problem:

  • excessive dieting or preoccupation with food
  • excessive exercise
  • binging and/or purging behaviour (induced vomiting or laxative use)
  • concern over image and weight
  • dramatic weight changes, either weight loss or gain
  • social withdrawal, or avoiding social events involving food.
Girl with blue eyes in yellow shirt

What are eating disorders?

There are many different kinds of eating disorders that affect young people. Essentially eating disorders are understood to be present when an individual has a distorted body image and constantly disturbed or irregular eating patterns.

Many individuals with eating disorders may be unaware their eating and exercise patterns are unhealthy or causing illness, or may not want help.

Most eating disorders are thought to stem from poor body image and self esteem, and are no longer considered to be illnesses that only females are affected by. It is estimated that one in five Australian teenage girls will be affected by an eating disorder at some stage, and that of children with eating disorders one in four will be male.

The most prevalent eating disorders our outlined below, as well as information on how you can help.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is characterised by an excessive and potentially debilitating concern over a part of one’s own body. People with body dysmorphic disorder are often extremely preoccupied with this concern, and can begin to obsess about their body or a particular aspect of their body they are unhappy with. Body dysmorphic disorder tends to be associated with very low self-esteem and negative self beliefs about physical appearance.

Signs and symptoms associated with body dysmorphic disorder:

  • constantly checking appearance/looking in the mirror
  • excessively ensuring that appearance is clean and well-groomed
  • often touching the body part that is of concern
  • social withdrawal, or avoidance of particular events (e.g. sports)
  • preoccupation with ‘fixing’ or altering the body part of concern (e.g. through surgery, make-up, exercise etc).

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that often presents with very specific characteristics, and physical signs. Anorexia nervosa develops when an individual severally reduces food intake and/or exercises excessively over a considerable period of time which results in substantial weight loss. Clinical diagnosis of anorexia nervosa involves the individual being under 85% of the body weight expected according to height and age to fall under a healthy weight.

Despite this weight, people affected by anorexia nervosa continue to feel dissatisfaction with their body and often continue to feel overweight. Given this, people with anorexia nervosa are often unwilling to alter their food intake and exercise patterns for fear of gaining weight. This can result in many people with anorexia nervosa not understanding themselves as having a problem, or being unwilling to change even if they are aware of it. Anxiety and depression are thought to be common underlying causes of anorexia nervosa, both of which can also be intensified by the eating disorder.

Signs and symptoms associated with anorexia nervosa:

  • intense fear of gaining weight
  • social isolation, often stemming from not wanting to eat around others and needing to carefully monitor what foods are eaten
  • purging behaviours (self-induced vomiting, laxative use or excessive exercise to make-up for food intake)
  • constant monitoring of food (calorie counting)
  • excessive exercise
  • feeling cold easily or often.

Physical signs of malnutrition:

  • loss of menstruation or irregular periods (amenorrhea)
  • infertility
  • soft hair that covers the body, a biological mechanism to increase body warmth in the absence of body fat (lanugo)
  • brittle nails
  • yellowed skin
  • difficulty concentration and irritability
  • irregular heart beat and possible heart failure.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa involves episodes of binge eating, that is consuming a lot of calories in a short period of time, often followed by some form of purging behaviour such as induced vomiting, laxative use or excessive exercise. People with bulimia nervosa tend to feel out of control when binging and often suffer from poor body image and self esteem. Binging episodes can often be triggered by, or follow attempts to restrict calorie intake and many people with bulimia nervosa may feel intense guilt over their food intake.

Signs and symptoms associated with bulimia nervosa:

  • depression
  • hiding food, binging in private
  • fatigue
  • tooth decay
  • digestive problems (indigestion or reflux, stomach ulcers).

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorders occur when an individual experiences frequent episodes of binge eating (consuming a large amount of food, beyond the point of comfort or feeling full). People with a binge eating disorder often report feeling out of control when they are binging. Diagnosis of binge eating disorder requires that these binges occur at least twice a week over a period of 6 months or more. Individuals with binge eating disorder tend to vary in weight with some people maintaining a normal weight, with others being overweight or obese.

Episodes of binging may occur in response to stress or anger but can also be triggered by boredom or general distress. In this way, binge eating may act as a way in which people manage and cope with challenging emotions.

Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder:

  • feeling out of control when eating
  • eating a large amount in one sitting or over a short period of time
  • regularly eating beyond the point of feeling full
  • hiding food and eating in secret
  • feeling embarrassed or guilty about how much food is eaten
  • experiencing guilt and disgust after a episode of binge eating.

What young people can do about eating disorders

It is important young people seek professional help as soon as possible if they are worried about having an eating disorder, as the longer an eating disorders has gone on for, the harder than can be to treat or break the cycle.

Discussing weight and body image with a teacher, counsellor, or doctor is a great first step in addressing eating disorders. GPs will be able to refer young people to appropriate specialised care, such as a nutritionist or psychologist.

Given many people affected by eating disorders are not aware that they have a problem, if you are worried about someone it is important to discuss this with them in a supportive manner. It can also be useful to discuss the matter with a support person in their life, such as a teacher, counsellor or parent, especially if they are resistant to help. resources on eating disorders

Recommended professional resources

The Butterfly Foundation specialises in support and resources for those experiencing eating disorders and those supporting them – including a national support line, web counselling, and education programs for professionals, parents, young people and schools.

The National Eating Disorders Collaboration provides more information on eating disorders, plus information on treatment, recovery and information on how to help.

How to help

  • Discuss your concerns in an open and honest way, aiming to be non-judgemental and kind.
  • Try not to focus on weight, food etc. Instead focus on concern for health and how they might be feeling or behaving.
  • Explain that their behaviours indicate that there is a problem and they might need help.
  • Offer to assist them in getting help, but be careful not to overwhelm with information etc.