Tagged Eating Disorders

The Urgency in Fighting Childhood Obesity

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Credit Paul Rogers

Life-threatening ailments like heart disease, cancer, stroke and Type 2 diabetes most often afflict adults. But they are often consequences of childhood obesity.

Two new studies, conducted among more than half a million children in Denmark who were followed for many years, linked a high body mass index in children to an increased risk of developing colon cancer and suffering an early stroke as adults. The studies, presented at the European Obesity Summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, this spring, underscore the importance of preventing and reversing undue weight gain in young children and teenagers.

One study, of more than 257,623 people, by Dr. Britt Wang Jensen and colleagues at the Institute of Preventive Medicine, in Bispebjerg, Denmark, and Frederiksberg Hospital in Copenhagen, grouped children according to standard deviations from a mean B.M.I., adjusted for a child’s age and sex.

They found that each unit of increase in being overweight at age 13, generally corresponding to a two- to three-point increase in B.M.I., increased the risk of developing colon cancer by 9 percent and rectal cancer by 11 percent.

The second study, involving 307,677 Danish people born from 1930 to 1987, used a similar grouping of B.M.I. The risk of developing a clot-related stroke in early adult life increased by 26 percent in women and 21 percent in men for each unit of increase in being overweight at all stages of childhood, but especially at age 13.

Although neither study proves that excess weight in childhood itself, as opposed to being overweight as an adult, is responsible for the higher rates of cancer and stroke, overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults — unless they adopt and maintain healthier patterns of eating and exercise.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, obesity most often develops from ages 5 to 6 or during the teen years, and “studies have shown that a child who is obese between the ages of 10 and 13 has an 80 percent chance of becoming an obese adult.”

In a study published in 2014 in The New England Journal of Medicine, Solveig A. Cunningham and colleagues at Emory University found that “overweight 5-year-olds were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese by age 14.” The study, which involved a representative sample of 7,738 kindergartners, found that the risk of becoming obese did not differ by socioeconomic status, race or ethnic group, or birth weight. Rather, it showed that excess weight gain early in life is a risk factor for obesity later in childhood across the entire population.

Children are generally considered obese when their B.M.I. is at or above the 95th percentile for others of the same age and sex. Currently, about one-third of American children are overweight or obese. By 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, 18 percent of children and 21 percent of adolescents were obese.

The adverse effects of excess weight in childhood and adolescence don’t necessarily wait to show up later in life. In a review of complications resulting from youthful obesity, Dr. Stephen R. Daniels, a pediatrician at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital in Denver, found that problems in many organ systems were often apparent long before adulthood. They include high blood pressure; insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes; high blood levels of heart-damaging triglycerides and low levels of protective high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol; nonalcoholic fatty liver disease; obstructive sleep apnea; asthma; and excess stress on the musculoskeletal system resulting in abnormal bone development, knee and hip pain, and difficulty walking.

Problems of youthful obesity go beyond physical ones. Obese adolescents have higher rates of depression, which in itself may foster poor eating and exercise patterns that add to their weight problem and result in a poor quality of life that persists into adulthood.

In a study conducted in Singapore, researchers reported that “individuals who were obese in childhood are more likely to have poor body image and low self-esteem and confidence, even more so than those with adult onset obesity.”

Another study by Dr. Jeffrey B. Schwimmer of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues found that obese children and adolescents reported a diminished quality of life that was comparable to that of children with cancer.

Taken together, the data speak to the critical importance of preventing undue weight gain in young children, a task that depends largely on parents, who are responsible for what and how much children eat and how much physical activity they engage in. As researchers from the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands put it, “Early recognition of overweight or obesity in children by their parents is of utmost importance, allowing interventions to start at a young age.” Yet, they found in a study of the parents of 2,203 5-year-olds, “parents underestimated their overweight child in 85 percent of the cases.”

Though it seems logical that parents who think their children are overweight would make a special effort to assure they would “grow into” their weight as they get older, research has shown the opposite. Such children tend to get even fatter, according to findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children reported in April in the journal Pediatrics by Eric Robinson of the University of Liverpool and Angelina R. Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine.

Even being labeled overweight can itself be damaging and make it harder for children to avoid bad habits, the authors suggested. A 2014 study of girls aged 10 to 19 found that “regardless of actual weight, adolescents who reported having been labeled ‘too fat’ by a family member or peer were more likely to become obese nearly a decade later.”

“I encourage parents to change the environment at home,” Dr. Daniels of the University of Colorado said in an interview. “Without being authoritarian, they should limit high-calorie-dense foods, keep sugar-sweetened beverages out of the house and assure that kids eat the right amount of fruits and vegetables and fewer calorie-dense snacks. Parents also need to be tuned into opportunities for physical activity and set hard-and-fast rules about television and time spent on electronics.”

Following the “5210” daily program endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics can help: Aim for five fruits and vegetables a day; keep recreational screen time to two hours or less; include at least one hour of active play: and skip sugar-sweetened beverages and drink water.

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Parents Should Avoid Comments on a Child’s Weight

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Credit Stuart Bradford

Should parents talk to an overweight child about weight? Or should they just keep their mouths shut?

Parents in this situation are understandably torn. Say something, and they risk shaming a child or worse, triggering an eating disorder. Say nothing, and they worry they’re missing an opportunity to help their child with what could become a serious long-term health problem.

Now a new study offers some guidance: Don’t make comments about a child’s weight.

The study, published in the journal Eating & Weight Disorders, is one of many finding that parents’ careless — though usually well-meaning — comments about a child’s weight are often predictors of unhealthy dieting behaviors, binge eating and other eating disorders, and may inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about weight that children internalize. A parent’s comments on a daughter’s weight can have repercussions for years afterward, contributing to a young woman’s chronic dissatisfaction with her body – even if she is not overweight.

“Parents who have a child who’s identified as having obesity may be worried, but the way those concerns are discussed and communicated can be really damaging,” said Rebecca Puhl, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “The longitudinal research shows it can have a lasting impact.”

The impact on girls may be especially destructive, she said, because “girls are exposed to so many messages about thinness and body weight, and oftentimes women’s value is closely linked to their appearance. If parents don’t challenge those messages, they can be internalized.”

The new study included over 500 women in their 20s and early 30s who were asked questions about their body image and also asked to recall how often their parents commented about their weight. Whether the young women were overweight or not, those who recalled parents’ comments were much more likely to think they needed to lose 10 or 20 pounds, even when they weren’t overweight.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, characterized the parents’ critical comments as having a “scarring influence.”

“We asked the women to recall how frequently parents commented, but the telling thing was that if they recalled it happening at all, it had as bad an influence as if it happened all the time,” said Dr. Wansink, author of the book “Slim by Design.” “A few comments were the same as commenting all the time. It seems to make a profound impression.”

Some studies have actually linked parents’ critical comments to an increased risk of obesity. One large government-funded study that followed thousands of 10-year-old girls found that, at the start of the study, nearly 60 percent of the girls said someone — a parent, sibling, teacher or peer – had told them they were “too fat.” By age 19, those who had been labeled “too fat” were more likely to be obese, regardless of whether they were heavy at age 10 or not.

Comments made by family members had even stronger effects than comments made by unrelated people.

Several studies have found that when parents encourage overweight teenagers to diet, the teenagers are at higher risk of lower self-esteem and depression and of being overweight five years later.

Research by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the University of Minnesota, found that when parents talked to their teens about losing weight, teenagers were more likely to diet, use unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eat. Those behaviors are less likely to develop when conversations with parents focused on healthy eating behaviors, rather than weight per se.

Harsh comments about weight can send the message that parents are “tying weight to some kind of perception about how the child is valued,” Dr. Puhl said, and that can trigger negative feelings. “The children are internalizing that, and thinking they’re not O.K. as a person. And that is what’s leading to other outcomes, like disordered eating.”

So what’s a parent to do? Do they just stand by while their child gains weight?

Dr. Neumark-Sztainer was besieged by parents asking her this question, and wondering, “How do I prevent them from getting overweight and still feel good about themselves?”

In her book, called “I’m, Like, SO Fat: Helping Your Teen Make Health Choices About Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World,” she notes that parents can influence a child’s eating habits without talking about them. “I try to promote the idea of talking less and doing more — doing more to make your home a place where it’s easy to make healthy eating and physical activity choices, and talking less about weight.”

For parents, that means keeping healthy food in the house and not buying soda. It means sitting down to enjoy family dinners together, and also setting an example by being physically active and rallying the family to go for walks or bike rides together. Modeling also means not carping about your own weight. “Those actions speak louder than words,” Dr. Puhl said.

While your children are young, “there doesn’t need to be a conversation at all – it really is just about what’s being done at home,” Dr. Neumark-Sztainer said.

If an older child is overweight, “wait for your child to bring it up, and be there to support them when they do,” she said. “Say, ‘Look, I love you no matter what size you are, but if you would like, I will support you. I suggest we focus not so much on your weight but on your eating patterns and behaviors. What would be helpful for you?’”

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An Eating Disorder in People With Diabetes

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Credit Luba Lukova

The first time she skipped an insulin dose, the 22-year-old said, it wasn’t planned. She was visiting her grandparents over a summer break from college and indulged in bags of potato chips and fistfuls of candy, but forgot to take the extra insulin that people with Type 1 diabetes, like her, require to keep their blood sugar levels in a normal range.

She was already underweight after months of extreme dieting, but when she stepped on the scale the next day, she saw she had dropped several pounds overnight. “I put two and two together,” said the young woman, who lives in Boston and wished to remain anonymous.

She soon developed a dangerous habit that she used to drive her weight down: She would binge, often consuming an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s peanut butter cup ice cream, and then would deliberately skip the insulin supplements she needed.

People with Type 1 diabetes, who don’t produce their own insulin, require continuous treatments with the hormone in order to get glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. When they skip or restrict their insulin, either by failing to take shots or manipulating an insulin pump, it causes sugars — and calories — to spill into the urine, causing rapid weight loss.

But the consequences can be fatal. “I knew I was playing with fire, but I wasn’t thinking about my life, just my weight,” said the young woman, who was treated at The Renfrew Center of Boston, which specializes in treating eating disorders, and is in recovery. “I got used to my blood sugars running high all the time. I would get so nauseous I would throw up, which I knew was a serious sign that I should go to the hospital. It was very scary.”

The eating disorder the young woman developed is unique to people with Type 1 diabetes and has been called diabulimia, though it is not a recognized medical condition. (People with Type 2 diabetes who take insulin do not have the same rapid response to insulin restriction.) It occurs when patients manipulate their insulin in order to purge calories, much as someone with bulimia might induce vomiting to lose weight.

Insulin restriction can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially fatal condition that develops when the body lacks insulin and starts to break down fat, producing ketones that can poison the body. It also increases the risk of serious long-term complications of diabetes, including kidney disease, blindness, nerve damage, amputations and heart disease.

“It’s a Faustian bargain,” said Dr. Henry Cheng, the Northeast regional medical director for The Renfrew Center.

Young women with Type 1 diabetes, which is often diagnosed in the pre-teenage years, when girls may be preoccupied with weight and body image, are at 2.4 times the risk of developing an eating disorder than other young women without diabetes, research suggests. Weight loss is often the first symptom of Type 1 diabetes, but once the condition is diagnosed and patients start insulin treatment, they tend to gain weight.

The combination of Type 1 diabetes and an eating disorder is “very dangerous,” said Ann Goebel-Fabbri, a psychologist in Brookline, Mass., who specializes in treating people with diabetes who have eating disorders. “Anorexia is the most lethal psychiatric diagnosis that exists, and the risk of mortality is so much more heightened when Type 1 diabetes is added.”

Research suggests insulin manipulation is not uncommon. A recent study in Germany found that among patients ages 11 to 21 who were being treated with insulin for Type 1 diabetes, one in three girls and one in six boys had reported either disordered eating, insulin restriction or both.

Another study from the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston that followed 234 adult women with Type 1 diabetes for 11 years found that 30 percent reported engaging in insulin restriction behaviors. Those who restricted insulin died at an average age of 45, compared with 58 for those who didn’t restrict insulin.

Treatment for diabulimia is especially challenging because approaches to managing eating disorders and diabetes are at odds with one another, said Trish Lieberman, the director of nutrition at Renfrew. “The treatment for diabetes includes very intense focus on reading labels, counting calories and carbohydrates, and limiting sodium and fat,” she said. “All these things that are very effective for treating diabetes are actually contraindicated for eating disorders, where we try to take a more intuitive approach, saying there aren’t good or bad foods.”

Indeed, Dr. Goebel-Fabbri said, the meticulous focus on food in diabetes “can mimic an eating disorders mind-set.”

An added danger occurs when diabetic patients disengage from their medical care, she said. That’s what happened to the Boston college student, who put off going to the doctor for months at a time, hoping the delays would give her time to change her behavior and improve her blood glucose test results. She was alarmingly underweight, and her friends and family were concerned.

Last spring, with severe pain racking her body and fearful she had damaged her kidneys (she had not), she finally enrolled in an intensive five-week day treatment program at Renfrew, followed by a slightly less intensive six-week program.

“At that point, it wasn’t so much for me,” she said. “I almost felt like if I were to die, I would deserve it. I was thinking more of my mom. I couldn’t do that to my mother.”

Though she still suffers from obsessive thoughts about food, she said, “I’m in a much better place. My weight is at a healthy range. I’m more comfortable about reaching out when I need help.”

Experts say both physicians and family members should be on the lookout for eating disorders in Type 1 diabetes patients who have repeated episodes of ketoacidosis, or consistently poor blood sugar control that doesn’t improve. While eating disorders usually develop during the preteen and teenage years, they may emerge later, during college or early adulthood, in those with Type 1 diabetes, experts say.

Once patients get help and start recovering, they can regain their health and stave off long-term complications, Dr. Goebel-Fabbri said. “What’s so positive, and what people need to hear, is that healing can occur, once blood sugar gets to a healthier range.”

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