With eating disorders, looks can be deceiving

By Jane E. Brody

Appearances, as I’m sure you know, can be deceiving. In one all-too-common example, adolescents and young adults with disordered eating habits or outright eating disorders often go unrecognized by both parents and physicians because their appearance defies common beliefs: They don’t look like they have an eating problem.

One such belief is that people with anorexia always look scrawny and malnourished when in fact they may be of normal weight or even overweight, according to recent research at the University of California, San Francisco.

The researchers, led by Dr. Jason M. Nagata, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the university’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, found in a national survey that distorted eating behaviors occur in young people irrespective of their weight, gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. And it’s not just about losing weight.

The survey revealed that among young adults ages 18 to 24, 22% of males and 5% of females were striving to gain weight or build muscle by relying on eating habits that may appear to be healthy but that the researchers categorized as risky. These practices include overconsuming protein and avoiding fats and carbohydrates. The use of poorly tested dietary supplements and anabolic steroids was also common among those surveyed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely exacerbated the problem for many teenagers whose daily routines have been disrupted and who now find themselves at home all day with lots of food being hoarded in kitchens and pantries, Nagata said in an interview. “We’re seeing more patients and referrals for eating disorders and their complications,” he said.

Without a proper diagnosis and intervention, young people with distorted eating behaviors can jeopardize their growth and long-term health and may even create a substance abuse problem. The findings suggest that abnormal behavior with regard to food and exercise is often overlooked, misunderstood, ignored or perhaps viewed as a passing phase of adolescence.

This is especially true among teenage boys. One-third of the high school boys surveyed said they were trying to gain weight and bulk up, and many were using risky methods to achieve their goals, Nagata told me. Sixty percent of the girls surveyed said they were trying to lose weight. Some consumed unbalanced diets that can jeopardize their growth and long-term health; others resorted to induced vomiting or abused laxatives, diuretics, diet pills or engaged in other hazardous behaviors like fasting or excessive exercise.

Overall, distorted eating was more than twice as common among females than males. It was also reported more often among those who described themselves as Asian/Pacific Islanders, gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Although diagnosis of an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia was twice as common among the young adults whose weight was normal or underweight, the fact that these disorders also exist in heavier young adults is often overlooked, Nagata said.

“Almost half of those with anorexia nervosa are at or above normal weight,” he said. “Young people with atypical anorexia have the same body image distortions and severe psychological distress as those with regular anorexia. They’re at high medical risk and just as likely to be hospitalized for complications caused by their distorted eating behaviors.”

Nagata’s colleague and co-author of the study, Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an internist at the university, said in an interview, “Physicians who care for young adults should think about patterns of eating that are harmful, and not just among very thin women. Young adults with abnormal eating habits too often fall between the cracks because physicians think of them as healthy. However, abnormal eating patterns are not uncommon in adolescence and young adulthood, and that’s when patterns of behavior related to later health and disease are established and solidified.”

The problem of disordered eating behaviors among teens and young adults is often encouraged or compounded by participation in certain competitive sports and other activities that overemphasize a particular body weight and physique. Among these are gymnastics, wrestling, dance, figure skating, weight lifting and bodybuilding.

Social media, with its heavy focus on appearance, has fostered the problem as well, Nagata said. Even toys, like Barbie dolls and action figures, have made a contribution. “A study of male action figures found that they have become bigger, more muscular and more extreme in their appearance over a 30-year period,” he said.

Bibbins-Domingo wants doctors to be proactive in asking about eating and exercise habits when treating adolescents and young adults. “They should have a conversation about what these young people are eating, when they’re eating and how they’re eating, and be able to give advice about healthy eating patterns.

“Without making a value judgment about body size, they can open the door to a discussion about eating and exercise habits,” Bibbins-Domingo suggested. “The physician might ask, ‘What did you eat yesterday, and where, and what do you think about the choices you made?’ or ‘Do you want to address weight issues?’”

The pandemic may offer one silver lining, Nagata said. “With more families eating meals together, it’s easier for parents to monitor what their kids are eating.” Having family meals together is one of the basic tenets of therapy for eating disorders, he said.

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