I'm an expert on eating disorders for All Experts. Over the past few months, the number of pleas from pre-teen and teenage girls seems to be skyrocketing.
They go something like this:
"Starting when I was 8 years old, I cut back my food intake and lost a lot of weight... " -- J, age 16
"I have not been eating recently. I am thinking about telling my parents but they would freak out because I am also bulimic. They are taking me out to dinner and I can't do it. They are also getting me ice cream. I can't handle both." -- A, age 11
"I have been having trouble losing weight over the past few months. I run every day with my track team between six to eight miles and try not to go below 1200 calories a day -- all healthy food. I was wondering if a 400 calorie diet might work?" -- M, age 18
I am literally scared of food. When I go anywhere near 1000 calories [per day], I get so depressed that I feel suicidal and I feel like I've failed myself. I'm addicted to losing weight. I love it. I want to get as small as I can get. I don't care about how unhealthy it is." -- K, age 17
These young women and men get in touch with me not for treatment questions, but because they are worried about hair loss, stunted growth, missed periods, skin flaking off, and the fact that they can't seem to lose any more weight and want my help with that. None of them really think they have a problem. They just want to know what pill I can recommend to "fix" whatever issue they're having without having to actually eat more and risk gaining weight.
I know these are isolated cases and I shouldn't make generalizations from them, but these are just samples of what I see each day. And the research is beginning to back this trend up. Eighty percent of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet. Eighty percent! Is anyone else alarmed by these statistics? When as a culture did we become so afraid of gaining weight or being "fat" that we decided starvation was the way to go?
I try to talk these young women down off the ledge. I try to explain that they need help, warn them of what may lie in the days ahead for them if they do not start eating again. But they don't hear me.
So hear this. We, as a society, have got to change. This unhealthy focus on appearance has to stop. It's all pervasive -- every magazine, TV show, movie, video game seems to be just a disguise for a how-to guide on how we're supposed to look, feel, and act. We, as parents, have got to start accepting ourselves for who we are so that our kids can learn from our own examples how to be comfortable in their own skins. We also need to explain to our kids that the images they see in magazines aren't even real. (If you've never watched "Dove Evolution," now's the time.)
And if you yourself are suffering from eating disorder symptomology, I urge you to get help. If you are too scared to speak to someone, there are fabulous online resources and books out there. I tell my clients who suffer from eating disorders to get hold of the new book by Lori Lieberman and Cate Sangster, Food to Eat: Guided, Hopeful and Trusted Recipes for Eating Disorder Recovery. They give practical advice and explain why each recipe is nutritious and okay to eat in their "outsmart your ED voice" sections. So if you are afraid to eat, this is the book for you. If you are a parent, sibling, friend or ED sufferer looking for a self-help book, check out Becky Henry's Just Tell Her To Stop -- Family Stories of Eating Disorders. With 20 stories to choose from, every person I've recommended this book to has been able to find at least one that resonates with them.
If you are struggling to make peace with food and your body, you can head on over to my website and click on ask Dr. Pritchard. Leave me a comment and I'll answer your question in an upcoming blog. In this day and age when we know so much about eating disorders, no one should have to suffer.
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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.