Some young people may feel guilty after eating. They may also be afraid of gaining weight, or have a negative body image. Sometimes these problems are linked to anorexia, a mental health problem that is often still taboo. When left untreated, anorexia can worsen and lead to more problems in young people's lives. But the good news is that most of the consequences of anorexia can be reversed with help. There are organizations that support young people with these issues, because mental health is just as important as physical health.
What is anorexia?
When we talk about anorexia in young people, we're actually talking about a disorder known in medical circles as anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized mainly by an intense preoccupation with physical appearance.
These concerns lead some people to impose severe dietary restrictions on themselves. These include drastic dieting, fasting, induced vomiting, the use of laxatives and excessive exercise. This can sometimes lead to sudden weight loss, but not all the time.
Because of this heightened fear of gaining weight, anorexia nervosa is considered a mental health disorder. People with anorexia nervosa suffer from body image distortion in the sense that they have a negative image of their own body. As a result, they tend to see flaws, imperfections or excess weight where none actually exist.
Anorexia and weight
It's also worth noting that this disorder is often associated with thinness. However, is it important to note that there is no set weight at which a person is diagnosed as anorexic. Someone who isn't physically thin can still suffer from anorexia. So you can't rely on weight alone to know if someone is ill.
Anorexia affects teenage girls in 90% or more of cases. Disorders generally begin in mid to late adolescence. More boys and adults are also affected (between 5% and 10% of anorexia cases).
According to Statistique Canada 20% to 30% of anorexics attempt suicide.
A young person with anorexia has nothing to blame themselves for. Behind the restrictive eating behaviors lies a great deal of suffering that is still poorly understood because of the taboos surrounding this illness.
Yet this mental disorder needs to be taken seriously, because simply eating more is not enough to cure anorexia. Fortunately, in most cases, the consequences of anorexia are reversible with the help of healthcare professionals.
What causes anorexia in young people?
There are many reasons why a young person may develop an eating disorder. These may include personality traits such as perfectionism, strictness or compulsiveness. Low self-esteem or failure to express emotions can also play a role.
There are also family and social factors, such as difficult family relationships, pressure to achieve perfection in various aspects of life, or the feeling of not having control over one's own life.
Social pressure related to weight and physical appearance can also influence eating disorders. Having friends or family who place a great deal of importance on physical appearance can play an important role. Similarly, being teased or bullied because of one's weight or appearance can be a trigger for anorexia nervosa.
In addition, stressful or traumatic life events, such as the loss of a loved one, an assault or relocation, can also contribute to eating disorders.
Finally, heavy consumption of social networks, television and fashion magazines is thought to encourage eating disorders in young people. These media convey and promote unattainable "beauty" standards, creating strong social pressure based on a culture of unrealistic physical perfection.
And while eating disorders may seem to offer some control over life at first, they actually have many negative long-term consequences.
What are the consequences of anorexia nervosa in young people?
A young person suffering from anorexia may feel guilty after eating. Counting calories, weight and appearance can become constant preoccupations, creating a heavy mental load. These concerns can become so overwhelming that it's not uncommon for people with anorexia to skip meals, weigh themselves several times a day and isolate themselves socially.
In menstruating people, food deprivation can lead to the disappearance of menstruation. In addition, nutritional deficiencies resulting from food deprivation have numerous consequences for the body.
Characteristic symptoms of anorexia include:
- General weakness and fatigue
- Dizziness and fainting
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Dry skin and pale complexion
- Hair loss
Moreover, anorexia sufferers with a low percentage of body fat may experience problems regulating body temperature. This means they are constantly cold, even when temperatures are mild enough.
Rapid weight loss associated with anorexia can also have an impact on body hair. Some people with anorexia may develop a thin layer of body hair called "lanugo". The appearance of this hair is the body's natural response and attempt to maintain a good level of body heat despite the loss of fat.
Finally, anorexia has serious consequences for mental health, leading to anxiety and depression.
If you're suffering from anorexia, or if you'd like to offer support to someone else, it's easy to find help. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it, because the important thing is not to be alone.
L’ANEB (Anorexie et Boulimie du Québec) offers a helpline. You can talk confidentially and anonymously with their counselors.
LOVE supports youth to thrive through programs and healthy relationships that build emotional intelligence and help overcome the challenges they face. Our participants emerge from LOVE’s programs with greater resilience, heightened skills, and the confidence to be inspirational leaders.