“I’m worried about my youth’s eating habits”
Is What I’m Seeing Normal?
It is normal to see fluctuations or changes in a youth’s appetite that would cause him or her to eat less, or more, food. For example, when youth are feeling stressed, sad, angry or worried, they may be more or less likely to eat. Everybody has unique patterns in their appetite and eating habits. There may be times in the day when youth feel less hungry (e. g. in the morning) or when they feel more hungry (e. g. in the evening). There also may be times in a youth’s life when they want to change their eating habits to help them lose, or even gain, weight, perhaps to achieve a healthier body weight, to achieve a certain aesthetic, to improve their athletic performance, or to generally feel better. Adolescence is a time in which it is normal for youth to be preoccupied with their appearance, which can include monitoring their weight and the types of food they eat. Youth often experience pressure to achieve a certain look or fit a certain standard of attractiveness, which can promote issues with food and eating.
Should I be Worried?
If you find that you your youth is consistently eating less than they used to, or more than they used to, and they seem unhappy about their weight and/or have odd eating habits, this could be a sign that something is wrong. If you have noticed any of the following signs, they might be experiencing an eating problem:
- Preoccupation with dieting and/or exercising
- Dramatic weight loss; thinning of hair or hair loss; dental issues
- Spending an excessive amount of time in the bathroom, especially after eating
- Criticizing their own appearance, size or weight
- Skipping meals often or claiming they are not hungry or already ate
- Eating alone or in secret (refusing to eat meals with family); hoarding food (e.g. in their room)
- (For females: ) having missed three periods in a row
- Expressing worries about gaining weight or becoming “fat”, although appearing thin
- Wearing baggy clothes (to conceal weight loss)
- Evidence of use of laxatives, diet pills
Sometimes medical conditions can cause changes in a young person’s appetite and eating habits; if you aren’t aware of any medical conditions, it is important to check this out with your doctor first. Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety [depression and anxiety], can also cause changes in a youth’s appetite.
If you have noticed extreme changes in your youth’s eating habits that get in the way of their day to day life, and you are worried about their eating habits and the way that they talk about their body, these may be signs of an eating disorder, such as Anorexia or Bulimia. According to the Government of Canada, a 2002 survey revealed that 1.5% of women age 15-24 had an eating disorder. You should be aware, however, that males can suffer from eating disorders, just as females can. Anorexia Nervosa is the technical term for a condition in which a person severely limits what he or she eats, cannot maintain a normal body weight, has an intense fear of gaining weight, and sees his or her body as being much larger or heavier than it really is. Bulimia Nervosa is the technical term for a condition in which a person (who is normally within a healthy weight range) “binges” or eats large quantities of food at single sittings, and uses unhealthy strategies such as vomiting, fasting, laxatives or exercising to prevent weight gain. Some people don’t exactly fit into either of these anorexia or bulimia categories, but may still have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are serious conditions that are difficult for a young person to fix on your own. If you feel that your youth may fit the description of either of these conditions, it is important that you talk to a doctor as soon as possible. Only a doctor can diagnose and properly treat an eating disorder. Without treatment, these conditions can lead to more serious health concerns. But, it is also important to know that they can be corrected with the right help.
How Can I Help?
There are strategies that can help you investigate changes to your youths’ appetite and eating habits. The first thing you should do is talk to your youth. Tell him or her that you are concerned and would like to talk about what is going on. Find out if there is anything that is contributing to the changes in their eating habits, such as stress, anxiety, sadness, or self-esteem issues. Try to be non-judgemental and receptive to what they tell you, even if it is shocking or alarming. Examine your own attitudes and values about weight and how these have been presented in your family. Talk with your youth about the influence of the media and how it confuses us with false and unrealistic messages about what it means to be attractive, beautiful and loved. If after talking to your youth you are still concerned, the next step is to talk to your doctor. As mentioned earlier, medical conditions can cause changes to a young person’s appetite. If there is no medical condition causing the changes, then your doctor can speak to your youth about other things that may be causing the problem, such as mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, or in extreme cases, eating disorders. Your doctor is the best person to tell you whether or not your youth’s eating habits and weight loss or gain are concerning. Your doctor will also know how best to help.
If your doctor isn’t worried about your youth’s health but does feel that they should make some changes to their eating habits, it may be helpful to talk to a nutritionist, dietician, or public health nurse to learn healthier eating habits. Your doctor should be able to refer you to someone if he/she cannot help you and your youth develop a plan. The Region of Peel’s Public Health Department offers many helpful resources in relation to healthy eating. If poor body-image or self-esteem is getting in the way of healthy eating habits, suggesting that your youth talk to a counselor or school social worker can also help.
Dieting can be dangerous territory, because it can lead to becoming preoccupied or “obsessed” with weight, weight loss, and a desire to look a certain way or achieve a weight that is unrealistic. Many diets don’t work or lead to people regaining the weight once they stop dieting. A better way for youth to think about losing weight is to simply have a goal to develop a healthier lifestyle, which means creating life-long habits that don’t stop after they lose the weight. Healthy eating and exercise are habits that should become permanent features of everyone’s life. Most importantly, though, you should focus on the youth’s strengths and what makes them attractive and unique. If they have a hard time thinking of things that they like about themselves on both the inside and outside, it may be time to focus on helping them build their self-esteem first, before they try to fix it by focusing on their weight. Remind your youth that feeling good him or herself starts from the inside.