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140403eatingdissordersblog 1When I was sixteen, I started to diet. My exercise habits increased in intensity, and as the weight melted away, friends at school complimented me. I felt a surge of control over my body and in my life that became addictive. Soon, I was 45 pounds less than my regular weight. I was anorexic.

My parents knew something was very wrong, but eating disorders were not well understood by many physicians in the 1980s. The years I spent struggling with anorexia nervosa had a profound impact on my physical and emotional health as a young adult. But, gladly, I was one of the lucky patients with an eating disorder who made a full recovery. One of my many goals in becoming a pediatrician was to help youth affected by this potentially deadly set of diseases.

Eating disorders can negatively impact every organ system in the human body. Malnutrition leads to shrinking of cardiac muscle, with loss of proper contractility and electrical signaling in the heart. Brain cells affected by the acids that a starving body uses as fuel do not function well, leading to changes in cognitive ability, thought processes and behavior. Bone-density decreases can lead to easy injury and fractures. Attempts by the body to conserve critical organ function leads to turning down, or off, of less vital organs such as ovaries and the thyroid gland. Cold intolerance, blue hands and feet, hair loss and skin deterioration are common.

Emotional changes evident during eating disorders can include depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, self-harming and suicidal tendencies.

weightsMuch has been said about the unhealthy “thin ideal” for women perpetuated in American media, but less has been said about the new emphasis on muscular, lean bodies.

Affecting boys and girls, this new ideal may seem like a good thing – especially since we also hear so much about the obesity epidemic in our country. But parents, beware. There are ways to improve the body in healthy and unhealthy ways.

A recent study of muscle-enhancing teenage behaviors published in Pediatrics offers concerning evidence that boys are negatively affected by popular media images of male bodies that are large, lean, and muscular.  

Boys who report dissatisfaction with their bodies are doing some good and some bad things to achieve this ideal. More than two-thirds of boys reported changing their eating patterns, and more than 90 percent exercised more to increase muscle mass. If they are taking these steps in healthy ways with realistic goals in mind – more power to them.

Unfortunately, one-third of boys said they regularly used protein powders and 6 percent admitted to using steroids. Both protein supplements and steroids can have serious health consequences, including kidney failure and heart-muscle enlargement.

Similarly, girls are trying to achieve the muscular and lean look, both in healthy and unhealthy ways. More than half of teenage girls in the study said they’ve changed their eating habits to build muscle; two-thirds exercised more; 8 percent used protein powders; and 1 percent used steroids.  

Parents, talk to your teen about their body image. Acknowledge that eating right and exercising to feel good is great. But trying to force their body to look like an air-brushed model is neither good for their health or their self confidence.  

If you’re concerned and would like some support in talking with your teen about fitness and body image, call us at Eugene Pediatrics. We’re here to help you every step of the way.