Is your teen almost always munching on something? Do you find him making too many visits to the kitchen? Do you see a gradual journey towards obesity? If the answer to all of the above is yes, then you could be facing a serious issue of compulsive binge eating in your teen. While gluttony can occur in multiple forms like drinking, smoking, sex and a whole host of material things, the most common form associated with teens is binge eating.
According to nutritionist Smitha Suresh, binge eating is when a person eats more food in a definite period of time than most people would. It includes eating speedily till one is ‘stuffed’ even when not necessarily hungry.
Why teens overeat
A number of factors, biological or behavioural, could influence your teen’s binge eating. For all you know, you too might be an indirect cause. Some obvious reasons include:
Skewed sense of hunger: The hypothalamus in the brain is the region responsible for hormone production. The hormones produced here help govern one’s appetite and hunger. When the hypothalamus does not function properly, one’s sense of hunger or fullness is skewed.
Force of habit: Binge eating could simply develop as a harmless habit of accompanying every task with food, like sitting down to study with a box of crackers or settling down for a movie with popcorn. Eventually, like any other habit, it becomes hard to break.
Food for comfort: More often than not, we grow up in an environment that treats food as more than just food. Food is your go-to when you’re seeking comfort, looking to reward, wanting distraction or needing entertainment. A teenager growing up in such an environment gets used to the idea of comfort food and starts depending on it.
Are you (parent) the culprit?
Parents often get the child distracted, with TV, in the hope of getting him to eat a little more. The focus is not on the food, and the child is almost always unable to tell when he’s full. This practice tends to carry over into the teenage years. He doesn't listen to what his body tells him and ends up overeating at every meal. Parents also tend to constantly feed their child in the false belief that more food equals more energy and strength. This directly impacts the child’s eating pattern in his teenage years.
Signs to look out for
Teenage years are a period of active growth and change. So you’d think it’s only natural that your teen eats more every day. Thus, it can be quite a task to identify the binge eater in need of help. Smitha adds that the only way out is to be vigilant and identify the early warning signs:
- Eating large quantities of food without even seeming to notice, without even being hungry.
- Hiding food or empty food packages.
- Turning to food when stressed or upset.
- Uncontrolled weight gain.
- Depression and negative thinking, combined with one or more of the previous points.
- Effects of binge/overeating
Binge eating can have a lot of negative impact on your teen’s physical and emotional state. While they may escape serious complications during their teenage years, the real issues start to hurt once they become adults.
- Excessive weight gain and its accompanying complications
- Low self-esteem, social withdrawal and depression
- Future risk of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, gall bladder and liver disorders
- Digestive problems
- Sleep disorders
- Joint and muscular pain, headaches
- Menstrual problems in girls
“People who binge often do so alone, since they are embarrassed. A binge eater feels depressed and guilty afterwards, and often promises to prevent another episode. They experience loss of control during the episode and primarily do it to escape from their negative, often overwhelming, thoughts,” says Smitha.
How you can help
“The goal is for your teen to start trusting his body and listening to hunger and satiety signals,” says Smitha. “A diet, rich in fibre and protein, will keep your child full and help to prevent binge eating. Fruits and vegetables, whole pulses, whole cereal grains, nuts and seeds, low fat milk and curd are important in a rehabilitation menu (in that order). Sticking to natural, healthy food is of utmost importance.”
Address the underlying problem: Binge eating is often the reaction to a bigger hidden issue. During times of trouble or distress, food becomes the easily accessible source of comfort. It is important to treat the root cause of the problem and not just the problem.
Restriction does not work: The lure of forbidden food is also a major cause for binging. To avoid overeating, let your teen indulge in her favourite food once in a while. Set a timetable. If you restrict a lot, it can prove counter-productive.
Consult a nutritionist: This will help your teen get back to a balanced diet. A gradual, yet complete change in eating habits is of high priority. Do not begin a weight-loss diet before seeking the advice of a nutritionist.
Get help from a counsellor: Binge eating and body image are important aspects of a vicious cycle in a teen’s life. Get her to a counsellor to help address issues of negative self-image and low self-esteem. A counsellor would also deal with your child’s dependency on food, especially in times of emotional distress. “The entire family embracing healthy eating will be the best support a teen can get and this need not happen only when a disorder is diagnosed. Such a transition to the path of wellness can prevent such disorders from occurring,” concludes Smitha.
So, what are you waiting for? Set an example now and be the change you want your teen to be.
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