News / Edmonton

The new face of eating disorders: New cases bust stereotypes

The Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta aims to bust myths about who actually suffers from disordered eating.

Flikr/Ben Stassen.

Zachary Bell hasn’t eaten any dairy, fruit or vegetables since he was about 10 months old.

Instead, the 12-year-old lives on a diet of mostly beige-coloured carbohydrates—cinnamon buns, toast with peanut butter, Cheerio’s and the occasional chicken nugget, but only from McDonalds.

But Zachary’s not just a picky eater.

The grade 7 student was recently diagnosed with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID. It’s a diagnosis that’s new, even to many doctors, and was only added in 2013 to the DSM-V, considered the definitive list of mental disorders.

It often starts in children and they don’t outgrow it, according to experts.

“It feels really bad,” Zachary said. “I wanna have a bite, but I just can’t. I just feel like my body’s taking charge.”

Kathy, Zachary’s mother, said it took years for doctors to realize her oldest son wasn’t just finicky. Doctors told her to “not be a short order cook,” to make him eat, or to take away his privileges if he didn’t.

Nothing worked, she said.

“They said he’s not going to starve himself,” Kathy said. “Well, he did. Once he didn’t eat for two days. You could hear his stomach growling.”

“We just traumatized him more than anything. It didn’t solve anything.”

From the beginning, Zachary approached food differently than her other two children, Kathy said. His struggles started with any chunky food he was fed as a baby and got worse as they tried to introduce new food.

Finally, years of “crying and fussing” at mealtimes led to a diagnosis, and now Kathy said they’ve taken the pressure off and let Zachary decide what he wants to eat, in addition to a daily supplement drink.

They’ve visited psychologists, clinics, occupational therapists, and most recently a hypnotherapist.

Zachary is one of a growing number of people with an eating disorder who don’t fit the stereotypical picture of disordered eating—namely, of a young women or girl struggling with anorexia.

This week, the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta is hoping to bust some of the common stereotypes around eating disorders—that they only affect young women, for example, or are about looking good or losing weight.

“It’s like comparing being a little bit sad to be being depressed,” said Executive Director Sue Huff. “Eating disorders are very complex psychological illnesses that have very serious consequences.”

Women are still diagnosed in higher numbers, but Huff said the gender gap is starting to close. While many start in adolescence, they can start as young as three or four or occur in middle age. They also tend to be hereditary.

“When we think that it’s only certain people who have disorders, we have blinders on, and we’re not looking where we should be looking,” Huff said.

“It can happen to anyone.”

Eating disorder awareness is week is Feb 1-7. For more information on events or the new support groups starting this month, visit the EDSNA website.

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