Della McAllister, clinical psychologist for Trinity Health, presented a talk Thursday on recognizing
eating disorders and getting help at Trinity Health's Education Center. Through the presentation, she hoped to raise awareness of the warning signs, as well as an understanding of the importance of early treatment.
"In terms of a clinical diagnosis, 3 to 5 percent of the population suffers from an eating disorder. The piece that is most disturbing is that we used to see more eating disorders in people in their late teens, now we have been seeing it more in pre-teens in the past three years," McAllister said.
McAllister explained that the greater incidence of eating disorders in a younger population is due to several factors, including an increased awareness of childhood obesity and children of younger and younger ages learning that thin is desirable.
"The challenge in the past three years has been that there is an increased awareness of kids being overweight, and we have been pushing nutrition education. We have been heightening the focus on that, and maybe those kids that would have developed an eating disorder later are now developing it earlier. They are exposed to the information earlier," McAllister said.
For parents, noticing warning signs of an eating disorder and getting the child into early treatment can make a big difference.
"The earlier it is treated, the less entrenched the disorder is, and the less damage is done to the body. And it's less likely that its going to be a lifelong struggle," McAllister said.
McAllister explained that some of the warning signs parents should be alert to include their child stops eating foods they used to like or they begin restricting foods, they start to dress in bulkier clothing, or they start exercising more than an hour a day in addition to their usual activities, becoming agitated when they have to miss a workout.
In spite of remaining alert, eating disorders can still remain hard to detect.
"Kids do hide it, and they're very good at hiding it. We're also a hurried society. We don't sit down and have breakfast all together, the kids have lunch at school, and we might not have dinner together every night if we're busy with activities. The awareness of how and what they're eating isn't as blatant and in your face," McAllister said.
"Another piece of that is, especially in the junior high age range, there is such a wide range of body types and their body is going through changes, so it's easy to attribute body changes to developmental changes," she added.
Parents also may not think their child is affected, because in general, those with eating disorders are high achievers. They may be good students, involved in many school activities, and are well behaved.
"You just don't expect it with those kids. Even when it becomes more noticeable, parents tend to want to attribute it to a medical cause," McAllister said.
In cases where parents have concerns, they should meet with their primary physician and pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical causes and to ensure their child's growth is on track.
McAllister explained that eating disorders are not simply about food, but about a number of factors, including a person's ability to communicate their feelings and their sense of self worth.
"It's not any one person's fault. When a person is diagnosed and in treatment, parents should understand that the child is working on communicating more directly and expressing feelings, and that having conflict isn't necessarily problematic. Understand that the child isn't cured, they may struggle for quite some time, and they may have relapses," McAllister said.
"For a person struggling with an eating disorder, they may have an awareness of it but they may still be in denial. When friends or parents approach you, try to hear it as concern and not accusations," she added.