Recovery from eating disorders a long process - but well worth the journey
Sylvie Morin didn't immediately attribute an eating disorder to the change in her 12-yearold daughter, Gabrielle.
"I noticed it gradually. She was questioning the portions on her plate and eating less and less," Morin recalls. "She was not the same person. Before she was lively and then she had no expression."
Peer pressure, low self-esteem, family problems, the glamorization of thinness in the media, potential biological links and even adolescence itself can trigger these disorders."
Anorexia affects very young girls and it involves as much the mind as the body," says Dr. Franziska Baltzer, director of the Adolescent Medicine and Gynecology Program at The Montreal Children's Hospital (MCH). The MCH had 80 new eating disorder cases last year and has seen patients as young as nine years old. Eating disorders also include bulimia (regular episodes of significant overeating and purging) or a combination of bulimia and anorexia, but these tend to occur in older teens.
Signs of a possible eating disorder include avoiding the dinner table, cutting out food groups, excessive exercising, personality changes and constant concern with fat and calories.
Gabrielle was very ill when she came to the MCH. She was extremely thin, her blood pressure and heart rate were dangerously low and she was underdeveloped for her age - physically, she was at the point of exhaustion. Anorexia usually strikes before puberty and stops the growth process. If caught in time, some of the damage can be reversed. The MCH's multidisciplinary, personalized approach includes physical assessments, individual and family therapy, clinical nutrition and sometimes hospitalization. Baltzer says 25 per cent of girls (90 per cent of people with eating disorders are female) with an eating disorder come out of it on their own.
Morin says Gabrielle was initially a bit reluctant about treatment, but knew it was the only alternative to avoid hospitalization. She first increased her caloric intake via nutritional supplement drinks then began a diet designed by a hospital dietitian. Regular weigh-ins and therapy sessions tapered as her condition improved.
Gabrielle's journey to recovery lasted a long two and a half years and meant missing a month of school. Now 16, she has regained weight and eats well. Morin advises parents not to get discouraged if it seems their children are not responding to treatment. Baltzer adds that denial often comes with this disorder. Parents suspecting their child has a disorder should see a family doctor or a dietitian experienced in eating disorders, Baltzer says. She also adds that recovery doesn't come quickly - the average length of an eating disorder is six to seven years.
"Parents should expect that it is a long, difficult process and that they are part of the treatment too."
By Margo Vizbara, MUHC