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Food focus: Eating disorders need extra attention in junior high

By April 28, 2010

Enterprise staff writer

Childhood obesity is frequently cited as a major health risk to the nationÕs youth, but experts reminded Davis parents recently of the dangers on the other end of the spectrum: eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

According to one local expert in the field, between 1 and 5 percent of youths suffer from eating disorders.

ÒAnd they are literally starving themselves to death,Ó said Tony Paulson, executive director of the Sacramento-based Summit Eating Disorders Outreach Program.

Paulson was one of several speakers last month at a parent education program at Emerson Junior High School. Hosted by the Emerson PTA, the program focused on developing healthy body images and eating habits.

Of concern to a number of parents present was how to walk the line between the two: encouraging their children to eat well and maintain a healthy body weight without cultivating unhealthy body images and eating disorders.

Michaela Bucchianeri, an eating disorders intern at UC Davis, urged parents to focus less on size and more on health.

ÒItÕs just about finding new ways to talk about our bodies,Ó she said. ÒItÕs less about form and more about function.Ó

In addition to focusing more on health than appearance, Bucchianeri urged parents to watch their language, particularly when it comes to what she calls Òfat talk.Ó

Fat talk, she said, ranges from negative comments like, ÒI feel so fat,Ó to seemingly positive ones that still over-emphasize the importance of size, like ÒYou look great; did you lose weight?Ó

ÒFat talk can masquerade as a compliment,Ó she noted.

ÒThe more people engage in this type of talk, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder,Ó Bucchianeri added.

And the consequences of eating disorders can be deadly, the experts said. According to Paulson, up to 20 percent of those suffering from anorexia nervosa Ñ in which they literally starve themselves Ñ will die from the disorder. Equally serious is bulimia nervosa, characterized by frequent binge eating and forced vomiting, Paulson said.

The good news, he noted, is that new scientific research shows the brains of people with eating disorders are significantly different from the rest of the population, suggesting a biological basis, which can help lead to better treatment.

Eating disorders are generally very difficult to treat, Paulson said.

ÒThere is a very low motivation for recovery,Ó he explained. ÒThe patient likes the eating disorder because it helps her.Ó

According to Paulson, junior high school is a common age of onset for eating disorders. Kids have left the safe, secure environment of their elementary school classroom and, in a way, childhood itself.

ÒYour bodyÕs not changing much in elementary school, and life is safe and secure,Ó he said. ÒThen in the blink of an eye, you go to junior high. Relationships are more complicated, bodies are changing, life feels out of control. Many girls think, ÔIf I can just control my body, I can get my life back in order.Õ Ó

Many girls begin dieting in seventh and eighth grade, he said, and get positive feedback.

ÒThey lose a little weight and get a lot of compliments,Ó he said, which in some, can send them down the wrong path.

ÒThe good news is, parents are the answer,Ó he said.

Bucchianeri agreed.

Use teachable moments, she said, like when fat talk is on TV or other media. Focus less on your own size and that of those around you, and watch what you say.

ÒExplore your own susceptibility to fat talk,Ó she said.

And pay attention to what others are saying to your kids, said Renee Dryfoos, founder of the Yolo County Eating Disorders Network.

With eating disorders, she said, there is often a single moment that starts the cycle in motion, an unintended Ñ or intended Ñ comment that pushes a child over the line.

ÒSometimes the tipping point is a comment from a doctor or a coach about the childÕs size,Ó she said.

Stay in touch with your kids, she said, keep the flow of communication open so youÕll be more likely to know whatÕs going on.

She also urged parents to talk to kids about the importance of moderation and learning to pay attention to their bodiesÕ signals.

ÒThis is where we can guide them to listen to their body more; to really check out if they are really hungry, or maybe just bored,Ó she said.

Ñ Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at (530) 747-8051 or [email protected] Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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