Anorexia is an eating disorder, but experts say it’s not really about food. Although the condition manifests as severe food restriction, in which patients adopt regimented, ritualized, and woefully inadequate diets, fundamentally anorexia is about control, it’s about body image, and in many cases it’s about difficulty managing the transition of adolescence. Teenage girls are particularly vulnerable to poor self-image and impossible or contradictory societal expectations. Accordingly, anorexia is the third most common illness among teenagers, and as many as 90 percent of anorexic people are female, many of whom started as teens.
Unfortunately, a near total lack of food can have devastating long-term or even permanent effects. Malnourishment, such as from a persistent eating disorder, does damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, and other organs, and this damage is irreversible even if the person is able to acquire normal eating habits. Anorexia can also result in death by starvation- in fact, it is one of the leading causes of death due to mental health issues. Other effects include bone loss, electrolyte problems, heart failure, and anemia.
Treatment for anorexia, as with many primarily mental illnesses, is often a long-term process. An anorexic person sees herself or himself as overweight when this isn’t the case, and an important goal of treatment is to replace this distorted self-image with a more accurate one. Recent studies suggest that the hormone oxytocin can help with this. It’s also important to make sure the return to a healthy weight is done right, without shocking or overwhelming a body grown accustomed to starvation.
Because anorexia so often starts during the teen years, parents are in a particularly good position to watch out for warning signs and to seek help. A difficulty of watching for anorexia is that people will actively try to hide the signs. Eating small portions or refusing food is possibly hardest to hide if the family eats together. Extreme weight loss that isn’t worrying or that the child tries to hide is something else to watch for. If you do suspect your child has anorexia, don’t be accusatory or confrontational, and don’t pursue it immediately if they deny anything is wrong. You should use "I-statements," describing your observation and concerns without discussing your child’s mental state. One factor underlying anorexia is a fear of getting fat, so you may need to reassure them on that ore without reinforcing the fear.