Once there was a beautiful little girl who lived next door to me. Her long, sleek hair was the envy of the neighbourhood. Her dimpled chin and almond-shaped eyes were desired by all. In a nutshell, she was the cynosure of all eyes in the locality. As she grew up, her cheeks swiftly lost what you call ‘baby fat’ and her hair lost its shine (thanks to the so-called hair products). It was only when they carried her away to the emergency room, four days prior to her 15th birthday that they saw the culprit which had been lurking – Anorexia, the Machiavellian villain.
Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by an intense fear of putting on weight, a refusal to maintain a healthy body weight and a distorted body image. With mainstream actors striving to attain the perfect body (read stick-thin), it is only natural that this idea percolates down to your pre-teens and teens. More prevalent in girls than boys, Anorexia is of two types – Restricting Anorexia, in which weight loss is achieved by restricting calories, and Purging Anorexia, in which drastic weight loss results from vomiting or using laxatives or diuretics.
Prevalence in India
The pressure to succeed in life is something that bogs down today’s pre-teens and teens. When you add the constant need to look thin and beautiful, it is only natural that they suffer breakdowns. Parents might think Indian children, especially girls are not prone to eating disorders. Unfortunately, that’s not true. A recent study involving differences between genders has shown that the incidence of Anorexia Nervosa is 10-20 times higher in females in India. The study, conducted by the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, which sampled the age group of 15-19 years, showed that 47% girls and 58% boys are thin, and 56% girls and 30% boys are anaemic. These worrying numbers indicate India is in an alarming grip of Anorexia.
Dr Ganesh Lokhande of Vedicure Wellness Clinics & Hospitals in Mumbai, says, “Teens tend to overlook the fact that they have increased nutritional requirements, which demand a diet rich in Vitamins, Iodine, Phosphorus and Iron. They are also highly prone to body dissatisfaction and depression. These are indications that the youth in India have been struck by the ‘thin bug’ and will do everything in their power to achieve their desire.” As ironic as it sounds, because of the diet consciousness in teens, the ‘health food’ sector is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 20% in 2015. We’re not saying diet consciousness is bad, but overdoing it is definitely unwarranted.
The warning signs
There is no single test to determine whether your child is undergoing an eating disorder. The visible effects on the health are many, if parents pay attention:
- Has your 11-year-old been terming carbohydrates and fat as ‘bad food’ or dieting in spite of being thin?
- Did you come across a calorie-recording book in your teen’s room?
- Have you been worried about her obsessive need to exercise and lose more weight than she actually should?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, you should feel the alarm bells ringing in your head. Teens generally fight tooth and nail before accepting that they have a problem. Attempts to cover up Anorexia could include lying or pretending to have eaten before, and avoiding consumption of food in public places. In addition to this, you can also watch out for signs such as thinning hair, shallow cheeks and an introverted attempt to consider the mirror a foe.
Risk factors aplenty
With most pre-teens and teens embracing the philosophy of being thin, the dividing line between being skinny and anorexic is misleadingly ‘thin’. There are no simple answers or causes of Anorexia. The reasons might range from family environment to emotional difficulties and low self-esteem. The biggest contributing factor though is the faulty image propagated by the media. Chennai-based dietician, Dr Dharini Krishnan, says, “These images, though not realistic, latch on to the brains of these young gullible girls and force them to degrade their bodies.”
The risks associated with Anorexia are many and varied – everything from anaemia to a compromised immune system to kidney failures, and finally death.
14-year-old Isha (name changed) got caught in the tentacles of Anorexia because of low self-esteem, thanks to the frequent taunts of her friends who teased her for being on the chubby side. Sumathi Chandrashekharan, the clinical psychologist who helped the teen overcome the disorder, says, “Whenever Isha tried to talk to her mother about the taunts at school, her mother did not listen. The empathy or support was not there, neither was the acceptance or approval.”
Help your child get over it
If you notice that your child is being picky about what she eats or is deliberately avoiding food, find out where the issue lies. "Most parents have a tendency to shout at their children or force-feed them the moment they realise that their children are not eating properly," rues Dr Dharini. "The primary thing parents need to do is to bring the child to a doctor who can figure out what is wrong," she adds.
Sumathi feels the action should be immediate and swift. “Parents have to understand that children might have problems outside home and if this is not discussed and resolved, it can lead to their confidence and dignity being affected,” she says. The affected child might have to seek medical help if she is dangerously malnourished. Once she is out of danger, she needs to meet a nutritionist who will help her chart out plans to maintain health and nutrition.
Counselling sessions, depending on how deeply the child has been affected by the disorder, have to be undergone by both the patient and the family. “Non-judgemental support is what the child needs now and craves for. If she finds that her family is always present as her support system, it will be easier for her to recover,” advises Dr Dharini.
Parents also need to look out for a relapse after the child recovers from a bout of Anorexia. Talking about Isha, Sumathi mentions how after the prescribed number of sessions, Isha or her parents never came back. “A follow-up must be done to ensure that the child does not fall into the trap again,” she insists.
If your child is diagnosed with Anorexia, be prepared for a long and difficult road ahead to recovery. But, fret not. The only thing the journey needs is support and encouragement from the family. Boost your child’s confidence and make her understand that outward appearances do not matter. Help her to discover herself keeping in mind her inner strengths and potential.