If your overweight teenager’s attempts at sensible weight loss don’t seem to be working, and she moves from one fad diet to another with nothing to show for it but a lot of anguish and frustration, she might ultimately decide to join the ranks of many other adolescents by resorting to the desperate lifestyle of an eating disorder like bulimia nervosa. As their preoccupation with weight and body image intensifies, these teenagers may start bingeing on food (often high-calorie junk food), consuming thousands of calories at a sitting, with seemingly no control over what they’re doing. Once a bingeing episode has run its course, which could take an hour or two (or sometimes more), they purge themselves by self-induced vomiting or abusing laxatives or diuretics.
For most bulimics, these bingeing-and-purging cycles repeat themselves day after day. These teenagers eat emotionally, even when they’re not hungry, typically trying to compensate for or cope with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. They usually feel guilty about and disgusted by what they’re doing and often hide food in their dresser drawers or closets. They may become depressed or experience mood swings, and despite symptoms like swollen glands in their necks and erosion of their tooth enamel (which is associated with vomiting), they can’t stop this cycle of emotional eating.
More than 10 million Americans have one type of eating disorder or another—not only bingeing and purging to avoid gaining weight, but also under-eating or self-starvation (anorexia nervosa), as well as gorging on food without any purging involved in it. Although these eating problems affect primarily girls and women in their teens and twenties, some boys have these disorders as well. They can go undetected for years, with bulimic teenagers often planning their bingeing-and-purging episodes when no one else is home.
As a parent, be on the lookout for behaviors that lead you to suspect bulimia in your adolescent. Bulimia is a complex disorder—you can’t assume that your teenager is going to outgrow it or that you can put a stop to the problem simply by telling her to quit. When the problem finally comes out in the open, become a good and nonjudgmental listener. To support her recovery, you also need to seek professional help for her, and the earlier this intervention takes place, the better. Contact your pediatrician,who will probably refer you to a specialist or treatment facility in this field.Your teenager will probably receive behavioral therapy (psychotherapy), nutritional counseling, and medications such as antidepressants to help her in the recovery process.