Eating disorders in the United States are growing by leaps and bounds and gaining more media attention than ever before. With fashion and beauty magazines playing a key role in the distortion of female body images, many young girls begin to experience what is known as dysfunctional eating, early in life. As a precursor to more complex eating disorders later in life, parents and educators should be familiar with the warning signs of a child who is engaged in dysfunctional eating habits.
Simply defined, dysfunctional eating describes an individual who approaches, with chaos, meals and preparation for eating. For most young adults, dysfunctional eating is a learned behavior, from within the family dynamic, and involves a combination of eating irregularities including binge eating, fasting, dieting and even starvation. For many teenagers and young adults, these home based dysfunctional eating patterns are behaviors learned from their own parents and often can be tracked to their own personal origins and eating behaviors as early as seven years of age.
As a general rule, when determining if a teenager or young adult suffers from dysfunctional eating, there is a three prong test. First, the dysfunctional eater will intentionally skip meals or even binge eat, irregularly, based on the perceived bodily self image of the day. On one day, the dysfunctional eater may overeat in an effort to gain a few pounds while on another day the dysfunctional eater will skip meals to drop a few pounds. This inconsistent pattern of body image, fluctuating day to day, is a key focus of the dysfunctional eater.
Secondly, the dysfunctional eater, when skipping meals, will deprive the body of necessary nutrition in an effort to become thinner. Where as, in contrast, as the third prong of the test, the dysfunctional eater will binge eat, overeating to appoint of exhaustion, to fill a void for boredom, to relieve anxiety or simply out of habit based on familial influences.
When a teenager or young adult is positive in all three prongs of the test, the precursor to an eating disorder, known as dysfunctional eating, may be involved. Especially for girls, early psychological intervention, in addition to nutrition and health based classes in school, may work to alleviate the eating disorder complications which may arise as a result of dysfunctional eating, including malnourished and underdeveloped bodies, not to mention the potential for developing more complex eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia.
As parents, we often promote the healthy and abundant eating within our children in an effort to ensure their bodies are growing properly. However, it is in the home that many of these young adults and teenagers first learn the habits of dysfunctional eating. For this reason, when children are young, it is important to establish and teach good dietary and nutrition to our children. But, to this, we must add a dynamic which involves healthy approaches to eating, including regular and scheduled eating times, avoiding mealtimes in front of television and eating at a slow and regulated pace so as to promote proper digestion, satiety and overall health, both physically and emotionally.