Most children, in particular teens, are self-conscious about how they look and appear to others. This is especially true as their bodies change and develop during their teenage years, coupled with social pressures. Unfortunately, for about 1 to 2 in 100 individuals, these concerns can become obsessions that can impact on weight fluctuations, impairing daily functioning and affecting their health and body functioning.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), girls and women are much more likely to have an eating disorder. Teenage girls who regularly diet are especially vulnerable. Societal pressure to be thin, emotional distress and family attitudes toward food can all lead a young woman toward unhealthy eating patterns.

An eating disorder is a serious disease that affects both mind and body. Eating disorders are characterized by a persistent pattern in eating behaviors such as extreme and unhealthy reduction of food intake, dysfunctional dieting, or severe overeating, as well as feelings of distress or extreme concern about body shape or weight. Eating disorders in teenagers and adults affect both females and males. Unfortunately, there is a rise for the number of teens and eating disorders. Although most of the research and literature focuses on females, there is a significant and growing number of males battling with food issues. Dr. Cherwony has seen many males with anorexia and other eating disorders in her practice.

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by self induced starvation and excessive weight loss. Individuals that are battling Anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight and being “fat” even though they are often underweight. They have a distorted body image, meaning that they see themselves as bigger than they actually are. As a result, they strive to maintain a very low body weight. Most commonly, they restrict their food intake by eating minimal amounts of food (extreme dieting), not allowing themselves any food (fasting), or engaging in excessive amounts of exercise with the goal to burn calories taken in. Anorexia is a serious and life-threatening disease. According to Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of National Institute of Mental Health, “Research tells us that Anorexia is a brain disease with severe metabolic effects on the entire body.” Anorexia is the leading cause of death among all psychological disorders.

Bulimia Nervosa is a serious eating disorder that is characterized by consuming large quantities of food in a short period of time (bingeing) followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors to “get rid of” the calories just consumed (purging), in order to prevent weight gain. Purging can take on many forms. For example, purging can include self-induced vomiting and laxative use. Symptoms include repeated episodes of bingeing and purging; eating beyond the point of fullness and feeling out of control during a binge; purging after a binge; frequent dieting; and extreme concern with body weight and shape. Research shows that 18 percent of college-aged girls struggle with Bulimia

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food in a short period of time also known as binge eating. However, in BED, the individual does not then engage in some type of purging behavior as in Bulimia. Individuals will typically eat these large quantities when alone, and then feel guilty, depressed and ashamed after overeating. Some refer to BED as obsessive eating. Binge Eating Disorder is the most common form of eating disorder in the United States today.

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) is a serious eating disorder that does not necessarily fall into the specific category of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Many individuals fall into this category and may include those who restrict as in Anorexia but are within normal ranges for their body weight, an individual who chews their food but then spits it out before swallowing, an individual who engages in bingeing and purging but less than the required frequency for a diagnosis of Bulimia.

Compulsive Overeating, sometimes referred to as emotional eating disorder, indicates that the individual struggles with a food addiction. People feel a temporary relief to their stressful days or painful emotions by eating without regard to whether or not they are hungry. In order to stop emotional eating, it is imperative that an individual understands that no matter how much they consume, they will not feel full until they address their reasons for feeling empty/deprived. Food and eating are a way to hide from their emotions, to fill a void they feel inside, and to cope with daily stressors and problems in their lives.

Binge eating can take place at one time during the day or an individual can snack or graze on small amounts constantly throughout the day. Regardless, they are taking in a large number of calories. For many, night eating is common. Left untreated, compulsive overeating can lead to medical problems such as diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, GI problems, kidney failure, anemia, high cholesterol, gallbladder disease, cancer, obesity, joint pain, anxiety and depression, among others.

A compulsive overeater may also have an alcohol or drug addiction. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), people with eating disorders are 5 times more likely to also abuse drugs and alcohol. Also, addicts are 11 times more likely to have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are serious and can be life-threatening. Dysfunctional eating habits may start out as a diet but can lead to a full-blown eating disorder. Although eating disorders manifest as issues with food and body weight, they are in fact not really about food or weight. Eating disorders are much more complicated than that. The food and weight-related issues are symptoms of something deeper such as depression, loneliness, insecurity, pressure to be perfect, or feeling out of control. These are psychological struggles that no amount of dieting or weight loss can cure. Focusing on one’s weight and obsessing about calories are really just distractions from the real negative emotions and struggles that an individual is facing. In our society, it is much more acceptable to speak about what diet you are on rather than on how poorly or insecure you are feeling. Many people ask if and whether overcoming eating disorders is possible. Treatment for eating disorders is multifaceted. While the treatment for Anorexia may be different from the treatment for Bulimia or the treatment for Binge eating disorder, all are serious food disorders that require a multifaceted treatment plan with an eating disorder specialist. Help with eating disorders is available.

Treatment with a professional who specializes in eating disorders is critical. It may be extremely difficult for loved ones to believe that the individual is capable of the behavior associated with eating disorders. Seek your own support so that you can accept that your loved one needs help. Do not deny that an eating problem exists. Early intervention can make a world of difference. Eating disorder treatment focuses first and foremost on restoring the individual to healthy eating with normal body weight through mechanical and later intuitive eating AND on addressing the psychological factors. Treatment helps individuals to attain a positive body image, free from preoccupation with one’s body. Dr. Cherwony takes on an empowerment approach with her clients, helping to promote positive body image and instilling a sense of self-acceptance, increasing self-esteem and self-love. Dr. Cherwony has extensive experience with all eating, food and weight issues, and works closely with dieticians and other healthcare providers in the treatment of eating disorders. There is help for Anorexia. There is help for Bulimia and Binge Eating disorder. There is help to stop compulsive eating or emotional eating. Eating disorder support is available!

Most eating disorders share a great number of common causes and emotional aspects. An individual may be suffering from an eating disorder even though she may appear healthy. Some individuals go undetected because they may even be at normal body weight.

Signs and symptoms of eating disorders:

  • Distorted body image
  • Significant weight fluctuation
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Preoccupation with food, weight, calories
  • Dramatic mood swings, increase in depression and anxiety
  • Denial of hunger
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Excuses about not being hungry or having eaten earlier
  • Excessive exercise
  • Food rituals such as playing with food on plate
  • Wearing loose clothing
  • Secretive eating and missing food
  • Intense self-criticism
  • Swollen parotid glands in neck
  • Calluses on hands (from self-induced vomiting)
  • Eating late at night
  • Disappears into bathroom after meals
  • Dental problems
  • Complaints of being cold
  • Avoids eating in public
  • Hair loss, pale skin color, broken blood vessels in eyes