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Teenage Eating Disorders: How To Spot If Your Child Suffers From Bulimia Nervosa

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Young patients suffering from the eating disorder bulimia nervosa have been found to recover much faster when their parents are involved in their treatment, a new study says.

Researchers from the University of Chicago and Stanford University School of Medicine compared well-known eating disorder treatments in order to determine which therapy works best for adolescents with bulimia.

Dr. James Lock, psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford and one of the authors of the study, said one of the challenges they have encountered is the lack of information on how to best treat adolescents with bulimia. They have mostly depended on the efficacy of eating disorder therapies for adults.

Teenagers with bulimia, however, are less entrenched in the illness and often exhibit a different set of needs compared to adults.

In their study, Lock and his colleagues examined data collected from 130 individuals, between 12 and 18 years old, who were diagnosed with partial or full bulimia nervosa. Each participant was assigned to receive a family-based therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy or supportive psychotherapy for six months.

The family-based treatment required the patient and the parents to work together to disrupt abnormal behaviors when it comes to eating, while the cognitive behavioral treatment focused on altering the patient's abnormal thoughts regarding body image, food and eating with minimal emphasis on changing his or her behavior.

The supportive psychotherapy was included in the study to help produce hypotheses for future research, but the researchers chose not to make use of it in their primary analysis of the findings.

Family-based therapy is considered to be more effective in treating adolescents with anorexia nervosa, while the cognitive behavioral treatment is known to be more helpful to adults suffering from bulimia.

By the end of their research, Lock and his colleagues discovered that around 39 percent of teenage participants who underwent the family-based treatment had refrained from both purging and binging on food for close to four weeks, while only 20 percent of those who received the cognitive behavioral treatment showed the same results.

After the treatment period, both the family-based therapy group and cognitive behavioral therapy group showed continued improvement, but the difference between the treatments remained.

Around 44 percent of patients in the family-based therapy group continued to abstain from purging and binging, while only 25 percent of those from the cognitive behavioral therapy group refrained from doing so as well.

After one full year following the end of the treatment, the gap between the two therapies narrowed and the statistics became less significant. The researchers, however, were uncertain whether this was because the two therapies had similar effects at the time or if some of the patients failed to return for further evaluation once the study reached the one-year point.

Lock and his colleagues pointed out that the biggest takeaway from the study is that family members can significantly impact the recovery of teenagers with eating disorders such as bulimia.

There are signs that parents need to watch out for to determine if their teenagers have bulimia.

What Is Bulimia Nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is a type of eating disorder wherein an individual would typically consume large amounts of food in a short period of time (binge). In order to prevent themselves from gaining weight, sufferers would then try to get rid of the food (purge) by vomiting, exercising too much or even taking laxatives.

Bulimia patients often place too much emphasis on their shape and body weight. To help them deal with these feelings, they would subject themselves to strict diet programs to lose weight. The resulting hunger from their strict diet would sometimes trigger them to binge eat.

Those who binge tend to feel guilty and afraid of gaining more weight, which would then cause them to purge the food that they consume. If left untreated, patients suffering from bulimia would experience severe and long-term health issues.

Bulimia is differentiated from anorexia, wherein anorexic patients have an extremely low body weight while bulimic patients typically are in their regular weight range.

What Are The Symptoms Of Bulimia?

Parents can help their children who might be suffering from bulimia nervosa by identifying the symptoms of the eating disorder.

Bulimic individuals often engage in repeated binge eating in which they consume large amounts of food in only a short period of time. This typically lasts for around two hours or less.

They also purge the calories that they have gained by forcing themselves to vomit the food they have eaten fast for long periods, exercise too much or misuse medicines, such as diuretics, enemas and laxatives. Too much use of these medications can cause patients to experience severe health problems and even death.

People with bulimia suffer from a loss of control over how much food they consume and shame from overeating. They also become afraid of gaining weight and would often base their self-esteem and appreciation of themselves on their weight and body shape.

Parents should also look out for changes in their children's behavior, such as becoming secretive about their eating and avoiding eating around other people.

The condition can also manifest through frequent weight changes. Sufferers can sometimes lose or gain large amounts of weight in short periods of time.

The findings of the University of Chicago and Stanford University School of Medicine are featured in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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