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Pediatric Health

When Food is Foe

Early Intervention, Family Involvement is Key to Overcoming Eating Disorders

March 01, 2011
By this point in the new year, many people's diets and fitness regimens have fallen by the wayside. But for the millions of Americans who suffer from eating disorders, calorie counting is a year-round obsession.

Eating disorders are becoming increasingly common in this country, and the majority of sufferers are teenage girls and young adult women. By some estimates, two of every 100 students in America will struggle with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or another eating disorder. This is cause for serious concern, because eating disorders – anorexia in particular – carry the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, with up to 10% of patients dying of the disease.

People suffering from anorexia have an intense fear of weight gain and often have a distorted view of their bodies, seeing themselves as overweight even when they are dangerously thin. They may use extreme dieting, excessive exercise, laxatives or other methods to lose weight. People with bulimia regularly binge on large quantities of food, often in secret, and then resort to vomiting or laxative abuse to prevent weight gain.

Early detection is critical in the treatment of eating disorders. While many teens successfully hide their illness for months and even years, families and friends can be on the lookout for telltale symptoms.

Common signs of anorexia include:
• unexplained weight loss
• compulsive exercise
• fatigue
• complaints of feeling cold
• hair loss
• absent menstruation

Common signs of bulimia include:
• preoccupation with food
• constant dieting without significant weight loss
• food "disappearing" from the house
• swollen salivary glands
• abuse of dieting aids or laxatives

Empowering parents
If an eating disorder is suspected, the next step is to seek diagnosis and treatment for the patient. Many people suffering from eating disorders refuse to believe they have a problem. Very often, the key to a successful outcome is a supportive, involved family.

Family-Based Treatment is a philosophy of care that has revolutionized this field of medicine since it was developed in England 25 years ago. This approach involves a Healthy partnership between patients, parents and medical providers, and it is at the core of the clinic I oversee in Indianapolis. The Charis Center, part of Indiana University Health, is the only clinic of its kind in the state. We offer a multidisciplinary approach to treating eating disorders, with a team that includes psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, dietitians, nurses – and even a yoga instructor.

Seven years is the average length of therapy for individuals with eating disorders. That's a huge commitment for the patient – and for the family as well. But a healthy outcome is well worth the effort.

For more information, please visit www.rileyhospital.org.

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Dr. Mary Rouse is the Director of the Charis Center for Eating Disorders in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health

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