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We need to talk about the dangerous myth concerning anorexia in teens

A study from the University of Melbourne has found anorexia can be possible at any weight, shattering perceptions that those who suffer from the disorder are always underweight.

The team of researchers worked with 171 adolescents aged 12 to 19 who were hospitalised for the first time between 2005 and 2013 at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.
They found that a third of these patients suffered from a condition called “atypical anorexia nerviosa”.

All these patients experienced low systolic blood pressure, low pulse rate and low phosphate levels, the very same dangerous, life-threatening complications typical of anorexia.

What surprised researchers was that this particular group of patients didn’t show the stereotypical emaciated look that is generally associated with anorexia and has been long considered the main criteria for diagnosis.

The results of the study point out that being ‘skinny’ is not necessarily the main telltale of anorexia. Symptoms are more closely associated with the rate of weight loss, which researchers conclude is a much stronger predictor.

Eating disorders, in fact, can occur at any weight. Regardless of actual weight or appearance, adolescents who lose large amounts of weight in short periods of time should be immediately assessed by a health specialist.

“If adolescents lose weight, it doesn’t matter what weight they are, a health professional should monitor them to check that weight loss is appropriate and if so, that it is done gradually,” dietitian Melissa Whitelaw, lead author of the study, said in a blog post.

“They should also monitor the adolescent’s dietary intake and relationship with food and exercise for signs the patient was spiralling into an eating disorder. Following large amounts of weight loss, careful medical assessment is also recommended.”

The main concern for health professionals is that challenges with negative body image and low self-esteem – reinforced by social media, among other things – means teens are vulnerable to inappropriate weight loss recommendations that promise quick results but often lead to dangerous consequences.

“And while adopting a healthier approach or dieting for weight loss can be done in a way that is healthy and safe, for some adolescents it can trigger eating disorder cognitions and lead to them adopting increasingly restrictive diets,” says Whitelaw.

“For some, this can become a vicious cycle as they receive positive reinforcement about their weight loss from friends and family. For those with previously higher weights, positive affirmations for their weight loss are common and, in some cases, they are even encouraged to continue losing weight.”

Eating disorders are a particularly delicate subject, taking into account they’re the third most common chronic illness in adolescents after obesity and asthma.

Whitelaw recommends that even in cases when the teen has been assessed as obese, weight loss should be monitored closely by a health professional that can help spot or prevent the emergence of a life-threatening eating disorder that could go undetected on the surface.

If you’re a parent and you’re concerned that your child could be experiencing a serious eating disorder, take note of the following signs and consult a health professional:

  • Severe loss of muscular mass
  • Exhaustion
  • Low body temperature, cold feet and hands
  • Dizziness
  • Memory loss
  • Constipation
  • Dry skin
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviour
  • Lack of emotion, depression
  • Swollen hands and feet
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of menstruation or period disturbance
  • Insomnia
  • Brittle nails
  • Over-exercising
  • Increased facial hair
  • Tooth decay and bad breath

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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