Who Gets Eating Disorders?
Are You at Risk?

By Abigail Natenshon
Author of When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder

Everybody knows that late childhood and teenage years are typically those where kids are busy trying to establish their identity, and to discover who they are. As a result, it is not unusual to find youngsters experimenting with new behaviors, even if such behaviors might sometimes tend to be fool-hearty or self-destructive. Kids often live with the belief that they are invincible; that bad things happen only to others, not to them. Of course, we know that no one is immune to bad things happening at any time in our lives.

By experimenting with certain kinds of dieting and weight loss behaviors, lots of young people put themselves at risk to develop eating disorders. They might attempt to lose weight by skipping meals, or by purging their food; they may binge-eat, then try to lose the weigh they have gained through the use of pills. More innocently, they may try to eat exclusively fat free foods under the misconception that this is the “healthy way.” They may over-exercise, believing that if a little exercise is good, than a lot of exercise is better. They may simply engage in quirky eating habits that in time become habitual and extreme, or may read or see movies about eating disorders, or listen to stories of people who have been through the ordeal.

Why do some kids develop eating disorders and others do not? It is impossible to ascertain the causes of these diseases in every instance, though the research points to evidence of the origins of these diseases existing primarily in genetics, through inherited body and brain chemistries, through personality and temperament. When such predispositions occur in tandem with stressors or triggers that exist in a person’s external environment, an eating disorder may develop.

Here are some considerations that may help you determine whether you have a propensity to develop an eating disorder.

  • Does anyone in your family have an eating disorder?
  • Is someone in your family alcoholic?
  • Is there sexual abuse in your family?
  • Is there verbal or emotional abuse in your family?
  • Does your family rarely eat meals together?
  • Are you a perfectionist? Compulsive?
  • Are others in your family perfectionistic? Compulsive?
  • Are you a disordered eater?
  • Are your parents disordered eaters?
  • Do you tend to skip meals?
  • Does your family tend to be extreme in their behaviors?
  • Do people in your family try to avoid problems rather than face and resolve them?

To be safe, it is a good idea to eat healthfully, and solve problems effectively, no matter what the nature of your internal or external environment. By doing so, you can virtually guarantee that you will remain eating disorder-free throughout your life.

It is important to keep in mind that in distinguishing an eating disorder from what might simply be quirky eating or experimentation that will never become pathology, an eating disorder’s main function is a response to emotions, and/or an attempt to resolve or cope with emotional problems.

Psychotherapist Abigail H. Natenshon has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders with individuals, families, and groups for the past 28 years. She is the author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA. October 1999. Based on hundreds of successful outcomes, this book shepherds concerned parents step-by-step through the processes of eating disorder recognition, confronting the child, finding the most effective treatment for patient and family, and evaluating and insuring a timely recovery. A guide to eating disorder prevention, this book is useful to parents, health professionals and school personnel alike in countering the pervasive epidemic of unhealthy eating and body image concerns, and destructive media and peer influences. Her work can be reviewed further at her web site at www.empoweredparents.com. To order visit amazon.com.

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