“No buddy,” I answered. “You weigh just what you should. You’re long, lean, strong and healthy. Why would you ask?”
“Josh (his best friend) said if you can’t see muscles in my stomach then I’m overweight. I can’t see those muscles mom. So that means I’m fat.”
“No many adults have that kind of muscle definition in their stomach. I don’t think kids your age are supposed to have six packs.” I told him. “You eat healthfully. You’re very active. You’re exactly where you should be weight-wise. Don’t worry. You’re perfect the way you are.”
We’ve had this sort of discussion before when he was six. What sparked it then was spending a weekend with a loved one who’s very vocal about her anxiety over food and her weight issue. It took several talks over the course of a month to convince my slender child he was “just right.” But both incidents have made me think of a conversation I had with the mom of a teen son 11 years ago. As she told me of his anorexia, the hospitalizations, his recovery and relapses, I was flummoxed and alarmed. Boys? With eating disorders?
But yes, eating disorders amongst teen and tween boys exist. In fact, incidents are rising. Experts point to the messages boys pick up from the mass media in regards to physical appearance. “The physical standards are becoming just as impossible for men as they are for women,” says Arnold Andersen, M.D., director of the eating disorders program at University of Iowa College of Medicine.
According to the research conducted by Dr. Andersen, one of the nation’s experts on male eating disorders about 80 percent of boys are dissatisfied with their bodies: “Half want to bulk up, and half want to lose.” According to an eating disorder site, “therapists are seeing 50% more men for evaluation and treatment for eating disorders than ten years ago.”
Aside from the media pressure what else triggers certain boys? Some studies point to the challenge of coping with emerging sexuality, other research cites becoming active participants in weight-conscious sports like swimming, gymnastics or wrestling. Other findings suggests there may be higher rates of eating disorders among gay males or boys who have been teased about their weight.
According to the The Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders by Marcia Herrin, EdD, MPH, RD and Nancy Matsumoto, the first step is watching your child’s behavior for symptoms. Does he avoid meals with the family? Does he head to the bathroom during/shortly after meals? Is he losing weight? Is he exercising excessively? Then it’s time for a talk.
If you suspect an eating disorder, taking quick action is key. “The longer he lives with the disorder, the harder it is to recover from it. Treatment may include the use of medications and behavioral therapy, in which a psychotherapist helps the child overcome his fears of eating certain foods or helps him find alternatives to bingeing and purging,” Herrin and Matsumoto write.
Protecting kids from these types of disorders means mindfulness on the part of the boy’s caregivers. Don’t pass your anxieties about food onto them. Don’t give food “power.” Children with a sweet tooth begging for treats should be allowed sweets in moderation. Labeling “good” and “bad” food may set up future problems. Don’t use food to comfort children.
Parents also need to stress that people come in all shapes and sizes. And if you child is a bit overweight, don’t put them on a diet. Find active activities for you and your family to enjoy instead.
For more information contact The National Eating Disorders Association referral helpline (800) 931-2237; nationaleatingdisorders.org, or The International Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center (858) 792-7463; edreferral.com. There’s also a local resource you can contact: Bulimia Anorexia Self-Help, Inc. (BASH), 6125 Clayton Avenue, Suite 215, St. Louis, MO 63139 (314) 567-4080