Eating disorders are more prevalent today than 10 or 20 years ago, partially because of more awareness of the disorders, more willingness to seek help and more emphasis on weight, body image and dieting, according to two local registered dietitians.
“Twenty-seven years ago when I started out, I didn’t see any eating disorders. It just wasn’t out there,” said Carol Banister, a local dietitian and owner of Carol Banister & Associates. Half of Banister’s clientele today are patients with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating or compulsive eating problems. She began to see eating disorders about 20 years ago; it has gradually increased since then.
JuliAnn Marzuola, a registered and licensed dietitian and a licensed professional counselor who specializes in eating disorders, said the prevalence also has to do with the media, particularly Internet media.
“In my practice, 13 seems to be the pivotal age because there’s a ‘perfect storm’ setting up in a young girl’s life at that time,” Marzuola said. “The body changes, the peer group changes. They can’t quite tell what their bodies are going to end up looking like,” she said.
Eating disorders aren’t exclusive to girls in their teens and early 20s; Marzuola has treated boys as young as 8; Banister’s youngest patient with an eating disorder was a third grader, although she’s had patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
“Besides parents, teachers and coaches are the ones most likely to pick up on any of the warning signs and symptoms that something might be going wrong,” Marzuola said.
The best way to address a potential problem is to first talk with a family doctor, Banister suggested.
Symptoms to watch for include a fear of fatness, distorted thoughts about size and shape of body, dramatic weight loss, avoiding food-related social activities, wearing really baggy clothes, personality changes including withdrawal, changing appearances over a brief period of time, playing with food a lot at the table, and offering excuses for not wanting to eat in front of others, including family, Marzuola and Banister said.
“For the male population, it frequently comes in the name of their sport. It might be a runner who eats no fat, no this, no that. There are a few too many food rules,” Banister said.
Treatment for eating disorders is a long process, the two dietitians agreed. “The average is over three years and includes inpatient and outpatient treatment,” Marzuola said.
Banister said women who had food issues in the 1970s are still having issues today as they reach 50 and beyond. “They’re still talking about their hips and their waist and their thighs and their stomach and their butts, and in those conversations, their daughters have picked up on it and so it’s being passed on down.”
Body acceptance is a major factor in dealing with eating disorders, according to Banister. “Families need to make sure that they’re not talking about fat people and body image and so-and-so is overweight and can you see how much she ate. Moms need to be very accepting and have a peaceful relationship with themselves and their food. Dads have a very important role as well. If a young daughter hears her father making a comment about another woman’s weight or size, then the daughter is going to take that as ‘I wonder what he thinks of me.’
“We all need to work toward having a healthy home environment in terms of conversations and not being judgmental regarding body shape and exercise and size,” Banister said. “The goal is to have a peaceful, relaxed relationship with food and self. That should be everyone’s goal.”