Eating Disorder Education at ABRHS
BY APARNA KAMATH '22
Eating disorders. We’ve all heard of them, right? Most of us even know people who have had one. Eating disorders are so incredibly complex yet common among high school students. So, let’s talk about it.
My name is Aparna, and since the spring of 2020, I’ve been working to implement eating disorder education into the freshman health curriculum at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School. With the prevalence of problems with food and body image in teenage students, it is necessary that we all know how to handle a situation where an eating disorder arises.
Eating disorders come in many forms and affect people of all demographics, but they’re most prevalent in teenagers, women, and LGBTQ+ populations. About 30 million Americans and 70 million people worldwide suffer from an eating disorder, and although disordered eating may seem like simple dieting or weight loss tactics, they can rapidly spiral into uncontrollable psychiatric illnesses that affect both one’s mental and physical health. If you have an eating disorder right now, you are not alone. There are so many people out there who care about your health and want to help you heal. It’s important that you reach out to someone you can trust if you have an eating disorder or if you know someone who does.
The most prevalent root cause of eating disorders in high school students is societal pressure to obtain the so-called ideal physical appearance. Most teenagers use at least one form of social media, and new posts featuring people with a certain body type that teenagers believe they are “supposed to have” only exacerbate insecurities. As a result, students feel the need to heavily diet and exercise in order to attain the supposed beauty standard, which can lead to dangerously unhealthy habits. Society's pressure to have the "thin ideal" is a significant root cause of eating disorders, along with other causes, including underlying genetic conditions, trauma, problems coping with stress, and more. It is often a combination of these factors that result in eating disorders in teenagers.
The most commonly found eating disorders in teenagers are anorexia and bulimia, but there are others, like binge-eating disorder, ARFID, and OFSED, also affect teens. Anorexia is weight loss due to excessive restriction while bulimia typically involves binge-eating and purging to lose weight. Binge-eating disorder is the consumption of large amounts of food at a time; ARFID, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, is characterized by highly selective eating habits and a mental inability to eat many foods; OFSED is a class of disordered eating that is characterized by maladaptive thoughts and behaviors related to eating, food, and body image and covers issues with food outside of the four previously listed.
There are numerous symptoms of eating disorders and multiple will often appear in the individual and gain severity over time. Here are a few: malnutrition, weight loss, loss of menstrual cycle, depression, anxiety, hair loss, low moods, inability to concentrate, a lack of interest in usual activities, gastrointestinal symptoms, exhaustion, withdrawal from close ones.
Of course, symptoms are more than just a list; they manifest in living, breathing humans, and we need to be aware of that. Simply watching for these signs in your friends, classmates, and family members will be a major effort in helping others get support for their issues.
Once you’ve noticed several symptoms building up in a person over time, it is vital that they take the first step towards healing. People with eating disorders are good at concealing them, so it may worsen before anyone notices that something is wrong. If you do see symptoms in someone, be honest with them. The best thing to do is to simply ask the question kindly Instead of saying, “Do you have an eating disorder?”, ask something like, “I’ve noticed that you have been offering your lunch to your friends lately, and it seems like you have trouble eating. Is everything alright?” Recognition is the first step of the process. You might be worried that you’re overstepping, but it is more important that they realize their problem and get help, so don’t let your concerns stop you from speaking up.
When talking to someone with an eating disorder, avoid extra stress and negativity. Pick a good time and place, and make sure that it’s private, with no distractions or constraints. Explain your concerns, and be prepared for resistance. Stay away from placing ultimatums, commenting on appearance or weight, shaming, using manipulation or threats, or giving solutions. Then, encourage them to seek help, and be patient and supportive. Be their friend. Give them time to talk without interruption, or give them space if necessary. You know that you are with them every step of the way, so make sure that they know it too.
Some professionals who have experience with eating disorder education in teens are dieticians, pediatricians, and psychologists, and these adults are often some of the best people to talk to for someone who has an eating disorder. They can recommend various treatment options, including day treatment, residential treatment, inpatient treatment, and outpatient treatment. If you would like to learn about eating disorders in more detail, navigate to Acton TV’s “Education” section or YouTube channel and click on the video titled “Eating Disorder Awareness and Education.”