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Mental Health Problems and Mind-Body Wellness

Eating Disorders

Prevention - When to Call a Health Professional

In a society where "thin is in," many of us have tried skipping meals or going on diets to lose weight. Unlike typical dieters, people who have eating disorders have medical problems that cause disturbances in their eating behaviour.

Anorexia nervosa is a disorder of severe self-imposed dieting. It affects teenage girls most often. Symptoms include refusing to eat; extreme weight loss; loss of menstrual periods; a distorted body image (thinking you're fat when you're actually very thin); a preoccupation with food; low self-esteem; and excessive exercise.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating dis- order characterized by binge eating and purging (forced vomiting or abuse of laxatives and diuretics). The binges are usually triggered by emotional upset, not hunger. Other symptoms include dry skin and brittle hair; swollen glands under the jaw from vomiting; depression and mood swings; a distorted body image; and secrecy to keep others from discovering your abnormal behaviour.

People who have anorexia usually look starved, but most people who have bulimia maintain a normal weight and look healthy. Most people with anorexia deny they have a problem; people with bulimia know they have a problem, but they keep it a secret.

Compulsive overeating is characterized by binging on food. An overeater will consume thousands of calories at a time, quickly and without pleasure. Because there is no purging, a compulsive overeater becomes obese.

Eating disorders appear to be caused by emotional and psychological factors. They tend to run in families, so there may be a genetic link. Eating disorders require professional treatment. If untreated, they can lead to major health problems or even death. Treatment usually involves nutritional counselling, individual psychotherapy, family therapy, and medication. A hospital stay may be required in extreme cases.


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  • Teach and model healthy eating and exercise habits at home and at school.

  • Help young people develop confidence and self-esteem. Accept them for who they are, not how they look.

  • Be careful about encouraging a young person to lose weight. Communicate that you love and care for the person, regardless of how much he or she weighs.

  • Don't set unrealistic expectations for your child. Striving to live up to them may lead to an eating disorder.

  • Be alert to the stress in your child's life. Be available to talk over any problems.

When to Call a Health Professional

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Call if you recognize any of these warning signs of an eating disorder:

  • Unrealistic body image or an unreasonable fear of gaining weight.

  • Extreme weight loss in a short period of time.

  • Forced vomiting or excessive use of laxatives.

  • Excessive dieting or preoccupation with food.

  • Excessive, rigid exercise routines.

  • Loss of menstrual periods in a young woman.

  • Withdrawal from family and friends.

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