When singer Karen Carpenter died of complications from anorexia nervosa in 1983, knowledge of the illness was not especially widespread. In a piece for People Magazine published nine months after Carpenter’s death, her brother, Richard Carpenter, recalled how Karen suddenly started losing weight in 1975: “It was right around that time that we heard about anorexia. I don’t recall how we learned about it—mainly we all just encouraged her to eat more.”
Carpenter’s death brought the public eye to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. In the decades since Carpenter’s death laypeople and celebrities alike have gone public with their eating disorders, spreading awareness about the importance of seeking professional treatment.
In 2016 spreading awareness is just as important as it was in 1983. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 21-27), sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is an annual campaign to bring public attention to the critical needs of people with eating disorders and their families. The focus of this year’s campaign is on early detection and intervention.
Anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder defined by NEDA as “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss,” affects up to one in 200 American women, and is the most common psychiatric diagnosis in young women. It can lead to death and many complications (see how anorexia affects your body in the infographic below).
Ovidio Bermudez, MD, a physician who specializes in treating eating disorders, says that women between the ages of 12 and 25 are most at risk, though “there are concerning trends among males, younger kids and more mature women who are suffering from eating disorders in increasing numbers.”
Since anorexia often affects teenagers and young women, it’s important for parents to know the signs, says Dr. Bermudez. “Parents can be aware of the risk so as to recognize early signs and seek professional treatment in a timely fashion.” Here are some red flags he and NEDA recommend looking out for:
- Change in Self-Image: “If your child used to like herself, but then starts to make comments about how nobody likes her, how herself or others do not like the way she looks, or how she’s never going to succeed, can signal a decrease in self-image,” says Dr. Bermudez. “Deterioration of self-image, including negative comments about their body is an example of such a decrease.” Withdrawing from friends and activities may be an indication of lower self-esteem.
- Preoccupation with Exercise: “Be aware if your child engages in exercise and becomes increasingly obsessive about it,” Dr. Bermudez says. According to NEDA, some anorexics will maintain a rigid exercise schedule, “despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury.”
- Obsession with Food: Which, according to NEDA, can include preoccupation with calories, fat grams and dieting. Other signs of food-obsession may include food rituals (eating foods in certain orders, excessive chewing, rearranging food on a plate, among others).
- Dramatic Weight Loss: Perhaps the most glaring sign of anorexia is dramatic weight loss. An person suffering from Anorexia, even after losing weight, might make frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight, according to NEDA.
If you suspect your child may have, or is developing anorexia, Dr. Bermudez suggests seeking evaluation by a qualified professional immediately: “A primary care provider, such as a pediatrician or a family physician can be the first step, then he or she can make a referral for a nutritional assessment and/or a psychological assessment. If significant concerns are identified, then a treatment plan, or referral to an expert team or a specialized facility can be made to initiate care.”
Dr. Bermudez stresses that, “Parents do not cause eating disorders in their children. Eating disorders are complex heritable illnesses that have bio-psycho social components.”
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For more information and resources, including how to talk to a loved one you suspect of having an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association’s website by clicking here.
Ovidio Bermudez, MD, FAAP, FSAHM, FAED, CEDS is the Medical Director of Child and Adolescent Services at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. Board certified in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, he holds academic appointments in Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. Dr. Bermudez is a Fellow of the Academy for Eating Disorders, the Society for Adolescent Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics. He is also Past Chairman and current member of the Board of Directors of the National Eating Disorders Association. He is a member of the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals and a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist. Dr. Bermudez has lectured nationally and internationally on eating disorders, childhood obesity and other topics related to pediatric and adolescent healthcare, and has been recognized for his dedication and advocacy in the field of eating disorders.