Understanding Eating Disorders

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
Healthy Minds
March 06, 2018

Some Common Myths about Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are a big deal. They are serious and can be deadly. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders. Medical complications and suicide account for the major cause of death among people with eating disorders.

Eating disorders are also not a choice. They are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that patients don’t choose and parents don’t cause. Causes of eating disorders are multi-faceted; caused by a combination of biological, psychological, sociocultural, and environmental factors. The best known contributor to developing an eating disorder is body dissatisfaction.  Eating disorders frequently co-occur with other mental illnesses like major depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Eating disorders are not limited to girls. The National Eating Disorders Association highlights current research indicating that nearly one-third of all individuals with an eating disorder are male. On the 2016 Fairfax County Youth Survey, 8% of 8th, 10th, and 12th grade FCPS students (10% of females vs. 6% of males) reported engaging in behavior typical of an eating disorder within the past month (i.e., going without eating for 24 hours or more, using diet pills or powders without a doctor’s advice, or vomiting or using a laxative in order to lose weight or keep from gaining weight).

Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder

Sometimes eating disorders are not as obvious as we think. Most individuals with an eating disorder are not underweight. Someone does not have to be emaciated before developing or receiving treatment for an eating disorder. Here are some possible indicators:

  • A marked increase or decrease in weight not related to a medical condition
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, dieting, body/image
  • Development of abnormal food or eating habits such as extreme dieting, preference for strange foods or withdrawn or ritualized behavior at mealtime
  • Withdrawal from usual friends or activities
  • Compulsive or excessive exercising
  • Discoloration or staining of teeth
  • Secretive food behaviors, including stealing, hiding or hoarding food.
  • Feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety or irritability
  • Evidence of binge eating, such as the disappearance of a large amount of food
  • Evidence of purging behaviors, including frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting or laxative, diet pill or diuretic abuse

Are You Concerned about a Loved One?

If an eating disorder is suspected, it is important to seek out help immediately. The prognosis for recovery is best when an eating disorder is addressed early. A combination of medical treatment and psychotherapy will be necessary once a diagnosis is determined. Contact your school psychologist or school social worker for assistance in seeking additional resources for support and treatment.

What Can You do to Help Prevent an Eating Disorder?

Fostering healthy attitudes about food and weight is crucial given that body dissatisfaction is the leading contributor of eating disorders. We live in a society that can equate thin to beauty. Here are some tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics to help foster healthy attitudes in your home:

  • Set a good example by focusing on healthy habits. Eat a nutritious variety of food. Encourage more frequent family meals.
  • Discourage dieting and avoid talking about weight. Teach your child to listen to what his/her body needs when deciding how much, and what, to eat.  
  • Encourage regular exercise and vigorous play. Help your child get active in something he/she enjoys.
  • Promote a positive body image. Support your child at his/her weight and body shape.

Healthy Minds is for parents, educators, and community-based providers who are interested in supporting student mental health and wellness. It represents a collaboration between FCPS’ Office of Intervention and Prevention Services and the Fairfax County Government. SUBSCRIBE to Healthy Minds and receive a monthly digest of our most recent articles.

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