13 January 2010

Eating Disorders Common Among Young Girls, Teens -- Overweight Epidemic Shouldn't Overshadow Dangers of Bulimia

The topic of childhood obesity receives a tremendous amount of exposure in the mainstream media these days, which is understandable. Certainly, there is reason to be concerned about the health of children who are overweight.

But what about the “thin at any cost” messages that are resulting in a generation of young people afraid to eat, whose self-esteem is damaged when the image they see in the mirror doesn’t conform to the unrealistic standard of beauty perpetuated by the glamour industry?

Children Afraid to Eat

According to Frances Berg, who wrote the book Children and Teens Afraid to Eat – Helping Youth in Today’s Weight-Obsessed World (Healthy Weight Network, 2001), parents should be equally concerned about children who are spending an inordinate amount of energy on unhealthy diets and who are developing potentially deadly eating disorders.

The truth of the matter is that healthy people come in all shapes and sizes. Children should be encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet, avoid a sedentary lifestyle and love the person they see looking back in the mirror.

Walks in the woods, working in the garden, playing chase with kids in the neighborhood and romping with the family dog in the park all work well. You don’t have to belong to a gym to be fit.

But when thin-as-a-rail seven-year-old girls are complaining that their thighs are too fat and perfectly healthy kindergartners beg their parents to let them go on a diet - something is wrong in the messages adults are sending them.

The emphasis should be on health, wellness, balance and moderation (and not size and shape).

My oldest daughter is seven. She’s lean and strong and athletic and healthy. But she’s already spending a lot of time in front of the mirror. As the first important man in her life, I just hope I have the wisdom to help her through these next few tricky years.

I’ll be a frequent visitor to Berg’s Healthy Weight Network website.

Andrea’s Voice – Resource for Information on Bulimia, Other Eating Disorders

Another valuable resource is Andrea’s Voice Foundation (AVF). Its website, Andrea's Voice, provides information and support for parents baffled by their child’s eating behavior.

The foundation came into being following the death in 1999 of Tom and Doris Smeltzer's daughter, Andrea, due to complications related to bulimia. Since then, the Smeltzers have become experts on the topic and have delivered presentations at hundreds of universities, conferences and organizations around the world. AVF is dedicated to promoting education and understanding toward the prevention, identification, diagnosis and treatment of disordered eating and related issues.

The book, Andrea’s Voice… Silenced by Bulimia (Gurze, 2006 ), written by Doris, describes Andrea as a young woman who "had the world at her feet: she was vibrant, talented, strong, and beautiful."

But after a one-year struggle with bulimia, Andrea died in her sleep at the age of 19, catapulting her mother into a journey of self-discovery and realizations about her daughter and herself.

Proceeds from the sale of the book help fund the foundation. You can order it on the website.

I got to know Doris a few years ago when an organization I was running, The Center for Child Advocacy and Research, worked with her to put on the Children: Health, Weight and Wellness symposium in Napa, CA.

What Doris and Tom unfortunately know all too well is that eating disorders, particularly among teen girls and young women, is a common problem. And sometimes, the results are tragic.

Results which will continue, unfortunately, as long as society continues its weight-loss and thinness obsession.