Disordered Eating -
Time for a Wake-Up Call
By Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
The statistics say it all. 40 to 50 percent of young women on college
campuses today are disordered eaters. By the time girls reach age 13, 80
percent report dissatisfaction with their body and their weight and have
been on diets.
Disordered eating, which includes skipping meals, dieting, restricting foods
or entire food groups, emotional overeating or under-eating, eating only
when hungry, etc., has virtually become a norm in our society today. High
school girls report that food restriction and issues of weight management
have become a constant preoccupation of peers, and particularly of athletes.
In a world where the true meaning of healthy eating has become lost or
distorted, disordered patterns such as restricting foods that contain fat or
sugar have come to be considered "healthy."
Though disordered eating is clearly
not an indicator of a clinical
ED, it can become a precursor or trigger to the onset of a clinical ED in the genetically susceptible individual.
Disordered eating is on the rise, and along
with them, these most lethal of all the mental health disorders, appearing
in children at ever younger ages.
Children are being diagnosed with anorexia by age 7, and the average
age of onset has dropped from ages 13 -17 to ages 9 -12.
Distinguishing between disordered eating and a clinical ED deserves
attention, though both conditions
warrant diagnosis. Disordered eating crosses the line into a clinical eating
disorder when immoderate, imbalanced eating habits become choice-less and
excessive; when compulsive thoughts and preoccupations about becoming fat
preclude other thinking, interfering with learning and normal daily
function; and because ED are biological
diseases, when predisposing clusters
of genes are responsible for the metamorphosis.
The art of problem
We all eat in disordered ways at times. It is hard to avoid missing a meal
now and again when we are busy and on the run or have had a large snack too
close to dinnertime.
These kinds of
patterns are not problematic for a non-eating disordered individual.
What distinguishes disordered eating from
occasional quirky or spotting eating is the purpose and consistency behind
the behavior, and whether or not the person maintains a sense of flexibility
or free choice with regard to the eating behaviors. If disordered patterns
serve to promote weight loss, increase athletic prowess, or purge food
consumed, they can become potentially dangerous.
Consider this scenario. A child runs out of the house in the morning without
breakfast because she has overslept and is worried about missing the bus.
That is a normal scenario, as seen in the child's response once she gets to
school. Feeling hungry, she grabs a midmorning snack and eats a larger lunch
than usual, taking in more calories to satisfy her appetite. Another child
believes that by skipping breakfast she is showing strength and
self-discipline in her restraint, getting her started on food restriction
for the day. If and when she does eat that day, she will probably
feel fearful, guilty and anxious about having sabotaged her self-control and
having given in to her “weakness.” This youngster has a problem.
In avoiding disordered eating, it is important to understand that:
Dieting is the worst way to lose weight.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
The best way to be, and remain, thin and healthy is to eat at least 3
meals a day, along with snacks, consisting of all the food groups.
Fat free eating is not healthy eating.
Any excessive behavior is an unhealthy behavior in its extreme nature.
Food is to be enjoyed, not feared.
Disordered eating in yourself or your child needs not develop into a
clinical eating disorder, particularly when there is early recognition of
signs and effective intervention. Recognizing disordered eating is a first
line of defense in prevention of more serious eating related problems. With
disordered eating or clinical eating disorders, an ounce of prevention is
surely worth a pound of cure.