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Deadly Eating Disorders: What Youth Leaders Need to Know

By Kimberly Davidson | Founder, Olive Branch Outreach; author of "Torn Between Two Masters" | January 19 2012

An Overview: What Youth Leaders Need to Know Today About Deadly Eating Disorders

It's been said that eating disorders (EDs) are the greatest mental health challenge for youth today. The fact is, troubling reports confirm to a greater extent that teens—girls and guys—are being held captive to this dreadful disorder. In this culture, an obsession with food and dieting often can be mistaken for a healthy lifestyle choice. We're often praised for working out three hours a day or having the willpower to eat teeny-tiny meals. We can download forms to help us count each calorie we ingest.

These are deceptive traps disguised as a potentially deadly eating disorder—and they are ready to take over a teen's life. Most disturbing is that in 2009, the government published data showing that children under 12 years old were the fastest-growing population of patients hospitalized for eating disorders. For the adolescent with a propensity toward an eating disorder, food eats a hole in their lives.

Eating disorders are often taken too lightly. The symptoms are brushed off as attention-seeking devices or fads that the person eventually will outgrow. This is usually not the case. Let me tell you personally, no one chooses to have an eating disorder; it's not a lifestyle choice or case of vanity. EDs are serious with severe medical, nutritional and psychological consequences. EDs that begin in a person's youth can carry over to adulthood. I developed an ED my senior year of high school and was not set free until I was 37 years old. It is a myth that an adolescent simply outgrows an ED. We need to be concerned when teens express weight concerns, when they talk about or start diets, or if their activity level suddenly rises outside of usual recreational or athletic activities.

Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) are the unspoken secrets that permeate many families. This is a growing problem in a nation that places undue value on thinness—even as overeating and obesity are epidemic. A growing body of evidence indicates men are as concerned about body image as women and that it's not unusual for a male to have an eating disorder. About 10 percent of teens with an eating disorder are boys, and the number is growing.

Anorexia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Individuals with anorexia have a relentless preoccupation with dieting and an irrational fear of weight gain even when emaciated, as well as a distorted self-image of body weight and shape. At 16, Terrie embarked on a harmless post-Christmas diet to shed a few pounds, but was soon caught in the grip of anorexia. Months later, her major organs failed and she died of a heart attack. Successful treatment is challenging because anorexia is brutal! One teen admitted, "I started to just eat less and less, then I started to feel fat for eating an apple a day. I wanted to be beautiful and I wanted people to notice how thin I was and I wanted to be somebody, but in the end I ended up wrecking my future." One aspiring model's body is so starved that she physically smells because her body literally is eating itself alive.

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