What if you started losing weight and couldn't stop?
I recently ran into a colleague who, when I last saw her a few months ago, had lost a lot of weight (although she had never been heavy) and looked great. Recently I saw her again, and she looks positively skeletal. Someone told me that she works out twice a day. Her cheeks are sunken. She apparently has crossed over from being healthy to being obsessive.
This is not a teenage girl. This is a professional woman, a wife, a mom. I don't know her well, certainly not well enough to say anything about what may be a problem. But I am worried.
I have never personally understood or related to eating disorders or how someone might form one (except of the gaining weight variety.) But I am aware of their prevalence, and their danger.
According to a new report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, eating disorders are on the rise in children. It is estimated that .05% of teenage girls in the United States suffer from anorexia and 1 -2 % have bulimia. Eating disorders are also on the rise with boys, and young males now represent 10% of all eating disorders reported. As part of the report, an analysis by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 increased by 119% between 1999 and 2006.
My issue has never been the need to re-gain weight from too much dieting. Quite the opposite – I am now avoiding an annual physical because I have not had the willpower or self discipline to lose the large amount of weight my doctor has told me to lose. I am terrified of going back to see her, a failure in the weight loss category, and have her scold me yet again.
I'm not sure how my weight gain got so out of control. It might have started when I was 12 years old, and my mother took me to the dermatologist. He told me, as was the fashion of the time, that in order to help my skin clear up I should cut out chocolate and soda – for the next seven years. Cold turkey. I nearly collapsed in tears in his office.
Soda was not an issue – I have always hated it. But chocolate? Chocolate? My life's blood? I tried, valiantly, to be a good doobee and stop eating what for me is another food group. But I began to sneak Oreos from the cookie box in the mornings before my mother woke up. I just couldn’t stop – and it became my first food failure.
I remained moderately healthy and a reasonable weight (although I always perceived myself as heavy) until I started having children. With my first pregnancy, I had morning sickness that prevented me from eating much for a couple of months. I realized that I was over it the day I picked up a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies and before I knew it, I had eaten the entire thing (chocolate, of course.)
From there it was a mere hop, skip and jump to rationalizing full pints of Ben & Jerry's for the calcium.
Remarkably, I never gained too much weight or contracted gestational diabetes during my pregnancies, not even the one in which I was on bed rest for a good portion of the time. The true weight gain has occurred post-pregnancy, as I've advanced into middle age and yet am still eating as if I'm pregnant.
Fortunately, I have the consciousness and the resources to feed my family a pretty healthy diet. We eat a moderate amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, and we eat little meat (except when I realize that the teen boy is suffering and then I ramp it up for a period of time.) My kids don't get dessert as a rule – it's a treat. There are certainly snacks in my house, but I've moved most of the snacking into the heart healthy categories (whole wheat Ritz, anyone?) and try to keep a balance of whole grains and fruits and veggies along with some more palatable choices (at least for children.)
My personal downfall is my chocolate stash, which becomes an obsession the minute I believe I might be deprived of it. My husband was truly appalled when he found out that when I travel, almost anywhere, I bring my own chocolate in case I find myself in a situation where I don't have access to it. Really.
I try to keep my neurotic addiction to chocolate pretty subverted with my kids and focus instead on healthy eating choices. As a result, my children are all relatively healthy eaters, and fall properly on the height and weight charts at the doctors, and for that I am grateful.
But I worry about the possibility of an eating disorder, way beyond my own chocolate obsessions, making its way into our lives. It's so easy – a stressful period of time, which is the very nature of middle and high school, even college, and one of my kids could slip into a terrible and dangerous cycle. None of them are perfectionists (thank goodness, although we could use a little more care and concern about our schoolwork, but that's a different post.) But truly, anything could trigger a need to take control over one's body in an unhealthy way.
I watched my colleague, a smart, personable woman, walk away. From the back, she looked like a teenage girl, except that I could see the outline of her bones through her jacket. It unhinged me, and offered me yet another reminder that as parents, we're never out of the woods. I need to continue to be conscientious around my family's eating habits for a long time to come, and to monitor my children's behaviors and tics with a mother lion's ferociousness, but from a distance, without being overbearing or too controlling.
It's a delicate balance, but one that is important and necessary. One that could possibly save their lives someday. And that’s worth a suitcase of Hershey's Special Dark any day.
photo by AComment via Flickr