Note to Parents of Teens who Binge Eat…While I do not Coach anyone under 18, I do offer Coaching/Consultation to Parents who are trying to navigate the complicated dos and don’ts of helping teens who struggle with binge eating and body image. CONTACT ME for more information about those services.
It's Difficult to be a Teen with a Binge Eating Problem
“All my friends ever talk about is what they’re eating and how thin they want to be …and aren’t. Sometimes they make it sound like the only way to be popular and happy is to be thin. I just want to be happy about the way I look. Why is that so hard?”
If this is the way you feel, you’re not alone. Welcome to A WEIGH OUT’s Especially for Teens Section; a safe place to explore your struggles with food, diets and body image.
The Way I Look
I JUST WANT TO BE HAPPY ABOUT THE WAY I LOOK
Being a Teenager is Stressful!
That’s no surprise to you! You’re probably facing all kinds of new responsibilities right now. You’re feeling more pressure at school and at home. You want to be more independent. You may have ideas and opinions that are not necessarily the same as your parents, your teachers, or even your friends. And, your body is changing. Being a teenager can be tough!
Then, On Top of That, Girls Get Judged By How They Look
In magazines, in movies, on T.V., everybody is like ultra-thin. Everywhere you turn you get messages about how “thin is in” and what’s “in” keeps getting thinner. Even your friends are comparing notes and competing about who weighs less. It’s like how you look is all that matters. The adults in your life tell you, “It’s what’s inside that counts.” But, many of them are dieting and working out and trying to be thinner, too.
Everybody is Focused on Weight.
But, What If It’s Really About Something Else? Here’s what we believe at A WEIGH OUT. We believe people focus on weight and on what they will or won’t eat— as a way to avoid focusing on other things that may upset them. At first, focusing on food (or your weight) may feel safer than focusing all the things around you that are changing and feel out of your control.
Instead of Facing Uncomfortable Feelings, People Focus on
Food and Weight Here’s an example of what we mean… Let’s say you’re angry at your best friend because she cancelled the plans you two had on Saturday night. Instead of focusing on how angry you are at your friend, or how upset you are about having nothing to do Saturday night, you start to think about food, or how much you weigh, or about what diet you’ll start tomorrow morning. As soon as you start thinking about the food, or weight, or dieting, you’re no longer focused on how betrayed or hurt you feel because your friend blew you off. Using food thoughts, or weight thoughts, helps you avoid thinking about something else.
You can’t THINK about food, or weight, or a diet, and FEEL at the very same time
Think about that for a minute. Do you ever find yourself having a food, or a weight, or a diet thought when you’re feeling anxious about something else…like a project that’s due at school, or about a relationship with someone you really like but you’re not sure likes you, or when you feel like you’re “not good enough” to do whatever?
This Coping Strategy Becomes a Habit. People Choose It Because it works!
It works for a little while. It does help you not focus on feelings like boredom, or nervousness, or fear, or loneliness, for a little while. But, then it creates this vicious cycle that makes everything worse.
The “Emotional Eating” Cycle Looks Like This
You have an uncomfortable thought or feeling, something you’d rather avoid—Automatically, you flip to a food, weight, or diet thought instead—Maybe you eat something—you feel guilty that you ate something—you have another food or diet thought in an attempt to avoid the guilt—now you feel trapped— and fat—- and out-of-control…and worthless…and you have more diet and food thoughts…and so on…and so on… and so on….
Why Food and Food Thoughts?
Food can be good company. It can be comfort. It can be fun. It can stop boredom. It doesn’t judge. Basically, it can take you away from dealing with all that stuff you don’t want to deal with. Thinking about eating, or not eating, and thinking about being thin, can help you avoid thinking about a math test coming up on Monday morning. Thoughts about food, thoughts about being thin — all do the same thing – they take you away from dealing with difficult and uncomfortable feelings.
Why Can’t You Stop?
The relief you get when you use food thoughts or thoughts about being thin is only temporary. So you have to do it again and again, and before you know it, it becomes the way you cope with everything.
There’s also some research that says we pick certain foods (sweet and starchy foods like cookies and ice cream, bread and pastas) because those foods have a calming effect on us. It’s actually a chemical effect and it works. And, that may be another reason we keeping doing it over and over again even when we say we’d rather stop.
Diets Don’t Work
Diets set people up for failure. 98% of people gain back all the weight back that they lose. Low calorie diets slow down your metabolism (that’s the way your body burns calories to give you energy) and makes it easier to gain more weight, even more quickly, when you go off the diet. Diets confuse feelings of hunger and fullness so your body doesn’t know what to feel. Restrictive diets set you up for more overeating and bingeing. (See Connections To Dieting?)
A Healthy Body = Healthy Food + Healthy Behavior
The younger you are when you start dieting and the more diets you’ve been on, the more likely you are to struggle with food and weight gain in the future. The best way to counteract the effects of damaging diets is to eat three healthy meals a day, plus healthy snacks, and to do physical activities that you actually enjoy. It’s amazing how quickly the body can restore itself to optimal health if given the chance. And you’re the only one who can give it that chance.
A Counselor Might Help
When it comes to learning other ways to deal with uncomfortable feelings, some young people may need to talk to a professional counselor. With support, teens can and do learn healthier ways to manage all feelings that lead to emotional eating and obsessive dieting. It’s O.K. to ask for help!
Your Body Image
Emotional eating is often tied up with self-esteem (how good you feel about yourself, in general) and how you feel about your body. The worse you feel about yourself and your body, the more likely you are to be focused on how thin or fat you think you are, and to think about eating or dieting. Often, a person’s image of his or her body is very different from how he or she looks to the rest of the world. This is called “a distorted body image”. Sometimes people see themselves as bigger than they really are. Some people see themselves smaller than they really are.
Healthy Bodies Come In All Shapes and Sizes
The latest research says, eating a well-balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise are what count above all else. You do not have to buy into the advertising and entertainment industries unrealistic norms for an ideal body to be healthy, fit and attractive.
No one else is just like you. Your physical self is an amazing and unique result of your heritage, your genes, your environment, your past, your activities, your taste and the choices you make every single day. You have a unique spirit. Your personality is all your own. Why does your body have to be like everyone else? Think about it. You get to set the standard for yourself. When you are true to yourself, you have only yourself to please.
Also, it’s O.K. to speak your mind if someone gives you their unsolicited opinion about your size and shape. It’s O.K. to tell that person that your body is your business, and your business alone! This takes courage! But, hopefully, your friends and family will respect you for setting personal boundaries and maybe even learn something from you about “self-care”, how to take good care of yourself.
SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO TO BREAK THE CYCLE?
- Stop dieting
- Get rid of the bathroom scale (your clothes tell you all you need to know)
- Start to notice if/when you’re having food, weight or dieting thoughts
- Understand that food and food thoughts may be your way of coping with uncomfortable feelings
- Eat three balanced meals a day, plus healthy snacks
- Listen to your body’s signals about hunger
- Stop thinking of any/all foods as either “good” or “bad”
- Don’t deny yourself – learn healthy moderation
- Find physical activities you enjoy and do them regularly
- Appreciate your unique “physical self” and celebrate it
- If you’re having a tough time, talk to an adult you trust – It’s ok to ask for help!
WHEN IS IT AN EATING DISORDER?
Do You Think About Food, Weight or Diets, A Lot?
It may be an eating disorder when your thoughts about food, or dieting, or your concerns about your body become more important than everything else in your life.
It may be an eating disorder when those thoughts get in the way of you doing things that you enjoy, when they interfere with the normal activities of your life, including friendships, school, going out, etc… If that’s happening, then you probably need some help.
THE FACTS ABOUT EATING DISORDERS
Eating disorders can cause health problems and be life threatening.
More girls and women suffer from eating disorders than do boys or men, but boys do get eating disorders, too.
Eating Disorders begin most often in adolescence.
Surveys show more than 50 % of high school and college-age women are unhappy with their body shape and size, with an estimate of up to 20% having an eating disorder at any given point in time.
There are several different types of eating disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.
Anorexia is when a person starves herself/himself to be thin. Usually the person has become about 15% below a healthy body weight and doesn’t ever feel like she/he is thin enough. People with anorexia have a huge fear of being fat. Someone with Anorexia has a distorted body image.
There Are Two Types Of Anorexia
- The Restricting Type
The Restricting type of Anorexia is simply dieting and fasting to lose more and more weight. Sometimes a person with this type of Anorexia uses too much exercise as their way to lose weight.
- Binge Eating/Purging Type
In the Binge Eating/Purging type of Anorexia, whenever a person feels he or she has eaten too much (that may be only a small amount of food, in actuality, but still feels like too much),the person deals with the fear of gaining weight by either vomiting, over exercising, using laxatives, diuretics or enemas, or any combination of these purging behaviors.
Often, a girl’s menstrual cycle stops. Increasingly, all the person thinks about is food, eating, body size and weight. In addition to obsessing about food and body, a person may also show the signs of malnutrition: weakness, dehydration, low blood pressure, always being cold, growing fine hair all over the body, erosion of enamel on the teeth, kidney damage, yellow skin, stomach problems, and even heart failure. Anorexia has one of the highest death rates of any mental disorder.
With Bulimia, there is also an obsession with food and being thin. A person eats large amounts of food in short periods of time and then gets rid of it by, either vomiting, exercising, use of laxatives or diuretics, or a combination of several of these purging methods. People struggling with Bulimia usually do all of this secretly and feel terribly ashamed and guilty about their behaviors. Still, they can’t seem to stop.
You Can’t Tell Who Has Bulimia By What He or She Weighs
Sometimes people with Bulimia are under a healthy weight, some people who binge and purge maintain an average weight, and some people with bulimia are overweight.
Some people with Bulimia find their weight goes up and down. Others stay pretty much within the same weight range. Eating Disorders are rarely about “weight”.
“Weight” is just the thing everyone focuses on, so they can avoid focusing in on other things (like feelings) in their life that may be bothering them, or that may feel out of their control.
There can be serious health problems because of the binge/purge cycle: vomiting can cause tooth enamel and gums to erode, salivary glands to swell and blood vessels to break in the eyes. The heart, kidney, liver, pancreas, thyroid, colon, esophagus, and stomach can be damaged. There can be neurological problems and excessive bleeding.
BINGE EATING DISORDER
Binge Eating Disorder is the eating disorder where people eat large amounts of food in short periods of time, or over long periods of time, and feel out of control while doing this. Often the binge only stops when a person is uncomfortably full. Thoughts about food, eating and body size or weight, take over the person’s life. People with binge eating disorder usually binge alone and feel disgusted and guilty about doing it. Still they can’t seem to stop. Unlike people with Bulimia, people with this disorder don’t do anything to compensate for the amount of food they eat (like vomit, over exercise, use laxatives or diuretics). The never-ending cycle of dieting can lead to the painful cycle of binge eating.
Some health problems that can happen because of Binge Eating Disorder are: high blood pressure, diabetes, and skin ruptures. You could also experience problems with your joints, breathing, gallbladder, pancreas and heart.
EATING DISORDER NOS (NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED)
This is when a person’s thoughts and behaviors around food, eating, and body, interfere with living a normal life, but don’t necessarily fall neatly into any of the other eating disorder categories.
ARE YOU AT RISK?
Below are some questions developed by ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.) to help you determine whether or not you are at risk for an eating disorder.
As you take this test, please keep this in mind…If you are in any way troubled by how you deal with food, eating, or your body, it is a good idea to find help. On our Resources page, you’ll find many ways to locate appropriate help in your community.
The easiest way to take the test is to check off the statements that apply to you and then print it out. Then, read the explanatory paragraph at the end. Be as honest with yourself as possible.
- I worry about what I will eat.
- If I gain weight, I get anxious and depressed
- I would rather eat by myself than with family or friends
- Other people talk about the way I eat.
- I get anxious when people urge me to eat.
- I don’t talk much about my fear of being fat because no one understands how I feel.
- I have a secret stash of food.
- When I eat, I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.
- I lie about what I eat.
- I don’t like to be bothered or interrupted when I’m eating
- If I were thinner, I would like myself better.
- I like to read recipes, cookbooks, calorie charts, and books about dieting and exercise.
- I feel guilty when I eat.
- My eating habits and fear of food interfere with friendships or romantic relationships.
- I binge eat.
- I am hardly ever satisfied with myself.
- I have fasted to lose weight.
- I have missed work or school because of my weight or eating habits.
- I tend to be depressed and irritable.
- I avoid some people because they bug me about the way I eat.
- When I eat, I feel bloated and fat.
- I enjoy cooking for others, but I usually don’t eat what I’ve cooked
- Even though people tell me I’m thin, I feel fat.
- I get anxious if I can’t exercise.
- My menstrual periods are irregular or absent. (female)
- My sex drive is not as strong as it used to be. (male)
- I do strange things with my food (cut it into tiny pieces, eat it in special ways, eat it on special dishes with special utensils, make patterns on my plate with it, secretly throw it away, give it to the dog, hide it, spit it out before I swallow, etc.)
- I get anxious when people watch me eat.
- I vomit or take laxatives to control my weight.
- I want to be thinner than my friends.
- I have stolen food, laxatives, or diet pills from stores or from other people.
- In romantic moments, I cannot let myself go because I am worried about my fat and flab.
- I have said or thought, “I would rather die than be fat.”
- I have noticed one or more of the following: cold hands and feet, dry skin, thinning hair, fragile nails, swollen glands in my neck, dental cavities, dizziness, weakness, fainting, rapid or irregular heartbeat.
About Your Responses
As strange as it seems in our thin-obsessed society, none of the above behaviors is normal or healthy. The more items you have checked, the more serious your problem may be. Please check with your physician or a qualified mental health counselor to assess medical and/or psychological risk.
Sometimes it’s hard to talk about these behaviors with anyone, let alone ask for help. So, if you decide to seek help, try this. Answer the questions listed above. Then print the questionnaire and take it to an adult you trust. Having the questionnaire in hand may make it easier for both of you to begin this very, very important conversation.
People do recover from eating disorders, but almost all of those who do, need professional help to get back on track. Asking for help is hard to do. (It even takes courage to take this test.) If you need help, we hope you will seek it out so you can begin to feel better.
(Questions originally designed by ANRED and Reprinted with permission.)
WHAT CAN I DO IF I THINK I HAVE AN EATING DISORDER?
We know from experience that teenagers who struggle with eating and body issues do better when they talk to a professional with expertise in these matters, than when they just talk to a friend. Recovery from an eating disorder takes time and patience. Recovery takes a desire to get better. And, yes, asking for help takes a lot of courage.
RECOGNIZE IT IS NOT ABOUT THE FOOD OR WEIGHT
Although, on the surface, eating disorders seem to be about food, or weight, or about what size or shape someone is in, that’s not what eating disorders are all about.
Eating Disorders Happen for Lots of Reasons
One of the main reasons is that a person had to find some way to deal with their stress and feelings. Getting focused on food, or weight, or dieting is a way to not be focused on other stresses or uncomfortable feelings (and let’s face it, being a teenager offers lots of opportunity to have stress and uncomfortable feelings.)
A Focus on Food or Weight Won’t Help
So, simply trying to change the way a person deals with food and weight won’t change anything. Even if the person loses weight, he or she will still have to deal with those stresses and feelings. Changing how much a person does or doesn’t eat won’t change all the other things in life that may be troublesome or upsetting. As difficult as it is to face having an eating disorder, it may seem even more overwhelming to think about facing the other stuff that is underneath the eating disorder…all the uncomfortable feelings that keep the eating disorder in place, even when the person wants to stop it.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS ALONE!
Ask For Help
Find an adult you can trust and who will support your efforts to get the help you need. Consider your parents, another relative, your school counselor or nurse, your pastor, rabbi, or youth minister, a teacher, maybe your medical doctor…any one of them might be a possibility, a person you could confide in.
Ask this adult to visit this website (or any others recommended on our Resources page) with or without you. The goal here is to tell someone else you are having a hard time and to start a dialogue about how to get some professional help for you.
Together, gather as much information as you can. Find out who the experts are in your community. Find a psychiatrist, or psychologist, a social worker or a counselor who specializes in working with Teenagers who have eating disorders. (Again, see our Resources page for treatment locaters.)
WHAT IF YOU SUSPECT A FRIEND HAS AN EATING DISORDER?
Find out all you can about eating disorders. Check out your concerns with others who know this person well.
Note to Parents and Caregivers…If interested in guidance and/or further education as you seek appropriate help for a teen who binge eats, I invite you to CONTACT ME to discuss next steps. While I do not Coach anyone under 18 years of age, I do Coach parents. Parents are welcome to get in touch to discuss whether my services may be appropriate for you as you navigate treatment approaches and options. A consultation with me can be especially helpful to parents who wish to learn how to (and not to) speak about binge eating and weight to a teenager who is struggling. My email is email@example.com, phone number is (513) 321-4242.