The Dangers of Eating Disorders

Abigail Donaldson, M.D.

Next week is National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) Week. Many people have heard of eating disorders, but are not aware of what they really are or just how dangerous they can be. The goal of NEDA Week is to place a spotlight on the subject and to provide what could be life-saving information.

Our expert, Dr. Abby Donaldson, from the Eating Disorders Program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital helps us shed light on this important issue.  

Dr. Donaldson tells us that, surprisingly, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescents, behind asthma and diabetes. They affect people of all socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and gender groups. 

When asked if the rates are increasing, Dr. Donaldson says, “More adolescents are being identified with eating disorders over time, but this may be due to increased awareness of these illnesses rather than increased prevalence in the population.”

Impact of media, social media

Dr. Donaldson says while media and social media help create unrealistic societal ideals of weight and body shape that could impact the development of eating disorders, she stops short of blaming the media. “Eating disorders are a family of psychiatric illnesses that patients do not set out to acquire, any more than they want to have anxiety or depression. Implying that the media is a cause risks implying that eating disorders are in some way the patient's fault,” she explains.

The signs

Children can experience any type of eating disorder – anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders that include food avoidance or specific food aversions.

It’s vital that parents and anyone who has contact with adolescents and young adults -- parents, coaches, teachers, clergy, etc. -- know the signs of eating disorders and the high prevalence of them in this population. Dr. Donaldson says the signs to look for are individuals who:

  • appear to be losing or gaining weight rapidly
  • radically change their diet or eliminate whole food groups from their diet
  • avoid eating with others whenever possible

Dr. Donaldson warns that any individual exhibiting these signs should be assessed for an eating disorder.  She adds, “Similarly, individuals who are chronically tired, have a fainting episode, have a decline in grades at school, or who become increasingly socially withdrawn should be evaluated for nutritional concerns by a medical professional.”

When to seek help

If parents have any of the above concerns, or something “just doesn't seem right” about their child's nutrition or exercise regimen, they should bring their child for medical attention with their primary care doctor and express their concern.

Dr. Donaldson says, “Eating disorders can be life-threatening, and therefore are critical to identify as early as possible in the disease. The sooner the illness is identified and treatment initiated, the better the long-term prognosis.”

In general, people with eating disorders should have a medical provider, a therapist, and a registered dietitian involved in their care.  In Rhode Island, there are many community-based providers who are very skilled in managing eating disorders.  There are also hospital-based programs like ours for adolescents and young adults, including inpatient medical and psychiatric care, partial hospitalization/day programming, and outpatient specialty clinical care with experts in the eating disorder treatment field. 

To find out more about services available through Hasbro Children’s Hospital, please visit our website, and this link for more resources.

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