In an increasingly obese world, eating disorders affecting youth

Local health officials say younger kids

are battling disorders such as bulimia
By:Marnie Kunz
   The first week of February, designated National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, was planned to spotlight eating and body image issues that often elude public attention.
   While the average American is gaining weight, for those on the other end of the spectrum, eating disorders are posing greater and greater health threats.
   According to local experts, eating disorders are afflicting people at younger ages.
   The Somerset Medical Center’s Eating Disorders Unit, which has been in operation since 1985 and provides the most intensive treatment program in the county, defines an eating disorder as a complex psychological illness characterized by a distorted body image, an intense fear of gaining weight, and an obsession with food. The most common eating disorders in Somerset County are bulimia and anorexia.
   Eating disorders are especially prevalent in Hillsborough, according to local social worker Carole Doorley, whose Somerville practice has specialized in eating disorders for the past 10 years.
   "There are a lot of patients in this area because it’s an affluent community. It may be because there is a lot of competition in schools, for grades, sports, clothes, etc.," Ms. Doorley said.
   Those who are especially susceptible to unhealthy eating practices are young women who are going through stressful periods of change in their lives, such as a move, parents’ divorce, or going away to college, Ms. Doorley said.
   Last year, 68 percent of the patients admitted to Somerset Medical Center’s Eating Disorder Unit were under age 25, and 97 percent of those admitted were female. Another risk factor is a perpetual desire to achieve and maintain "perfection."
   "Eating disorders know no boundaries, but people from upper and middle class families focus on achievement and link their self-esteem with their achievements," said Dr. Joseph Donnellan, who has worked with patients in the Somerset Medical Center’s Eating Disorder Unit for the past 11 years. This mode of thinking can lead to destructive eating habits in the quest to be thinner and thinner.
   Due to the complicated psychological nature of eating disorders, it is hard to attribute all of the causes that contribute to the problem. Furthermore, those struggling with eating issues often keep them secret.
   "Most people who have eating disorders don’t go for treatment. Only about 15 to 20 percent of individuals with eating disorders get treated," Dr. Donnellan said.
   Besides the prevalence of eating disorders in Hillsborough, the demographics of the sufferers are changing to include younger people and more men.
   "It does appear that eating disorders are starting earlier," said Hillsborough social worker Shari Weinglass, who specializes in eating disorders at 407 Omni Dr. "Probably in large part due to the emphasis on thinness in the media."
   "We’ve been seeing more men in the past 10 years, and also more patients on the younger and older ends of the age spectrum. We don’t take people younger than 12 but we’ve had calls from 9-year-olds seeking help," said Dr. Donnellan. "We just had a couple in their 70s that came in for treatment."
   "I think the message is coming across to look a certain way, and kids are getting that message at younger and younger ages," Dr. Donnellan explained.
   The pervasive pressure to be thin is evident in the statistics of dieters in America. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, Americans spend more than $40 billion a year on dieting and diet-related products.
   In addition to media images, parents and peers can present a problem for kids who may be susceptible to unhealthy eating habits.
   "Body image starts very young. If a child’s mother is constantly dieting and worried about her weight, that’s not good for the kid. Parents can help by letting their children know there is so much more to them than their body, and the reason to exercise and eat well is to be healthy, not to cut and burn calories," Ms. Doorley said.
   All three of the local experts agreed that eating disorders delve much deeper than the physical problem and signify underlying psychological issues.
   "Eating disorders aren’t just about looks, they’re connected with self-esteem issues," Dr. Donnellan said.
   "Eating disorders are very complex," Ms. Dooley agreed. "It’s not about the food. It’s about underlying psychological issues."
   The positive news is there is a high recovery rate among patients who are treated for eating disorders, Dr. Donnellan said. Usually a combination of therapy and nutritional guidance is effective. Eating disorders are obsessive in nature and often can’t be stopped without professional help, according to the Somerset Medical center.
   For more information about eating disorders or to get help, contact the Somerset Medical Center Eating Disorder Assessment Center at 1-800-914-9444 or visit the National Eating Disorders Association at