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With Eating Disorders, Looks Can Be Deceiving

Distorted eating behaviors occur in young people irrespective of their weight, gender, race, ethnicity or sexual


By Jane E. Brody

July 27, 2020

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


The researchers, led by Dr. Jason M. Nagata, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the university’s Ben ioff

Children’s Hospital, found in a national survey that distorted eating behaviors occur in young people

irrespective of their weight, gender, race, ethnicity or sexua l orientation. And it’s not just about losing weight.

The survey revealed that among young adults aged 18 to 24, 22 percent of males and 5 percent of females were

striving to gain weight or build muscle by relying on eating habits that may appear to be hea lthy 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 pan demic 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, Dr. Nagata said in an interview. “We’re seeing more p atients 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 p roblem. 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 b oys surveyed said they were trying to

gain weight and bulk up, and many were using risky methods to achieve their goals, Dr. 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.

Over all, 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. The survey was conducted among a national sample of 14,891 young adults who were followed for seven years,

starting at an average age of 15. The goal was to see if the youngsters’ perceptions and habits surrounding food

and exercise could serve as warning signs of behaviors that could injure them physically and emotionally.

Among the boys in the study, those m ost at risk worried that their bodies were puny — too small, too skinny or

insufficiently muscular, prompting them to consume unbalanced diets, exercise obsessively and take

supplements or steroids that are a hazard to their health. When overly fixated on building their bodies, they can

become socially withdrawn and depressed and develop a disorder called muscle dysmorphia that can lead to

heart failure, resulting from insufficient calories and overexertion.

A missed diagnosis is likely when a young person’ s relatives or doctors have preconceived notions about how

someone with an eating disorder looks or behaves. For example, Dr. Nagata said, a teenage girl or young

woman who is anorexic can fall under the medical radar because her weight is normal or even o verweight.

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, Dr. 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.”

Dr. 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 eati ng 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 enco uraged 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, Dr. 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 ext reme in their appearance over a 30 -year period,” he said.

“If youngsters are obsessed with an idealized body image, their thinking and behavior become disordered and

can take over their lives,” he said. “The detrimental effects can be subtle. Prior to the pandemic, they may have

rejected going out with friends so they could spend more time in the gym. It’s a warning sign when they

withdraw from normal activities and become preoccupied with their appearance.”

Unhealthy weight control methods can predispose p eople to eating disorders and actually lead to weight gain,

not loss. I struggled with weight gain in my early 20s and, having failed to control my weight any other way, I

eventually resorted to fasting all day until supper. But once I started eating, I co uldn’t stop and ended up

gaining even more weight. I had developed a binge -eating disorder that resolved only when I stopped trying to

diet and returned to eating three wholesome meals a day , including one small snack so I didn’t feel deprived.

Dr. 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 e ating and

exercise habits,” Dr. 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 li ning, Dr. 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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