Ask Dr. Marla: Dealing with eating disorders

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I recently heard that the incidence of hospitalization from eating disorders has increased. As a mom to two teenage girls, what signs should I watch for and what should I do if I think my daughter has an eating disorder?


Yes, the Canadian Institute for Health Information recently reported that between 2006 and 2013, the rate of hospitalization for eating disorders in girls ages 10 to 19 increased by 42 percent in a two-year span. To answer your extremely important question I turned to the Canadian Mental Health Association and the National Eating Disorder Information Centre.

According to a 2002 survey, 1.5 percent of Canadian women ages 15–24 had an eating disorder. There are three main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

In anorexia nervosa, the individual will often restrict the amount of food they eat or they may exercise to excess. With bulimia nervosa, there are periods of binge eating and then purging through vomiting, or overuse of laxatives, diuretics or other medications. In both these disorders there is often constant thinking about their weight. Body weight may be a measure of how they see their self-worth.

The prevalence of anorexia and bulimia is estimated to be 0.3% and 1.0% among adolescent and young women respectively. Prevalence rates of anorexia and bulimia appear to increase as girls make the transition from adolescence into being an adult.

While we often think of gaunt and underweight as the appearance of those suffering from this disorder, in fact an eating disorder can start well before someone looks unwell.

As many as 10 percent of people who experience anorexia die as a result of health problems or suicide.

As the Canadian Mental Health Association points out – eating disorders can affect anyone, but some people may be at higher risk. People who experience lower self-esteem or poor body image, perfectionism, or difficulties dealing with stress may be more likely to develop an eating disorder. A lack of positive social supports and other connections may also play a big part.

It is important to talk with our daughters about body image and focus on healthy lifestyle rather than weight. People come in all sizes and shapes and it is important to boost self-esteem in our young women. (And in fact boys and young men are not immune either.) Keep the doors of communication open at all times. Do not judge but rather support and understand that there might be a greater issue at hand.

Remember that you are your child’s role model, so if you focus on weight and dieting that sends important messages to them. Be aware of your behaviour and attitudes. If you have concerns, encourage your child to seek support and appropriate counseling. Eating disorders have serious physical and psychological consequences.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2014.

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