Is this an eating disorder?

By Barb Duncan

In the summer between Grade 9 and Grade 10, Sara Cameron* registered for a learn-to-run program. Pretty soon, she was covering five kilometres with ease. “She talked about trying a half marathon,” her mom, Liz, recalls. Although Sara lost a few pounds as a result, Liz thought nothing of it. Her bright, popular, active daughter had always been a focused, high achiever and she seemed to really enjoy the activity. “She was healthy and happy.”

Six months later, the teen and her mom were in a doctor’s office, where Sara was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder (ED). She had lost over 25 pounds, her periods had stopped and there were concerns about her heart health. “It was devastating,” Liz admits. Fortunately Sara got treatment, including inpatient and outpatient care, group and family therapy, and medication. Today she’s an adult and she is well.

Unfortunately, the outcome isn’t always so positive. “Anorexia has one of the highest death rates of any mental health condition,” according to Ottawa’s Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre at That’s why early intervention is critical. If you’re concerned about your youngster, don’t hesitate to learn the ED warning signs and to get help.

The first week of February is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It’s worth taking the time to recognize what these conditions are all about, especially since they tend to start in adolescence. As Liz Cameron will tell you, it’s all too easy to miss the early signals. In the Cameron household, busy schedules allowed Sara to skip meals without drawing attention. “She would say she’d eaten at her friend’s house or she was going to grab a bite later.” Clothes hid a lot, too, Liz adds softly. “She was always cold, so she wore layers.”

There’s no hiding this fact: Eating disorders are the most common chronic illness in teen girls. Boys aren’t immune, either. CHEO’s Regional Eating Disorder Program serves children and youth who are struggling with moderate to severe EDs, but the CHEO website points out that some of the associated behaviors are anything but rare. “Behaviors that include dieting, bingeing, self-induced vomiting, using diet pills and laxatives are seen in more than 27 per cent of girls aged 12 to 18.”

Eating disorders affect how people feel about food, their bodies and themselves. Health consequences can range from osteoporosis to heart failure. The three main disorders are anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervous (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED).

• Anorexia is characterized by restricted food intake, weight loss and intense fear of weight gain.
• Bulimia is characterized by binge eating followed by purging through vomiting, laxatives, exercise or fasting.
• Binge eating disorder is characterized by binge eating on a regular basis, without purging.

Always, the sooner treatment is accessed, the better. The first step is booking an appointment with your family doctor or your child’s pediatrician. There are various treatment options, resources and sources of support in the community, including CHEO’s Eating Disorder Program, Hopewell Eating Disorders Support Centre, as well as community-based therapists and dietitians. At the Ottawa Hospital, the Regional Centre for the Treatment of Eating Disorders serves the needs of adults who suffer from serious eating disorders.

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