According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, there are 8 million Americans (1 million are men) with an eating disorder and 50% of all Americans say they personally know someone who is afflicted with the disease.  Only 30-40 percent of all diagnosed anoxerics will fully recover, while from 5 to 20 percent will die after contracting the disease within 10 or 20 years, respectively. A whopping 95 percent of those with diagnosed eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25 years old and a mere 10 percent will get treatment.

Eating disorders are a serious health problem among all athletes, male and female, including dancers and may start at a very young age. Earlier in 2012, NBC Nightly News ran a video called Boys Dying To Be Thin: The New Face of Anorexia. It's shocking to see straight-A students and athletes who die in their pursuit of physical perfection, and it is important to understand that both sexes are susceptible to eating disorders.

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For all the benefits of a strong dance program, a downside is when fitness goals turn to an obsession with being thin at any cost. Unfortunately, the Irish dance world is not an exception. It used to be that ballet dancers were those most prone to eating disorders, but now it is seen among other forms of dance, and many competitive Irish dance students cross-train with ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, etc.

A desire to have the “right look” for performance or competition can be overwhelming to some students and parents. Advertisements and fashion models boast sizes 0-6 to be acceptable and, the unhealthy message that follows is that anything higher is cause to lose weight. Many people including Irish dancers, because of their body types and frames, may actually be healthy in those sizes.

Getting away from the concept of dieting and developing a healthy meal plan is an important step in avoiding eating disorders. A healthy meal plan allows for appropriate variety and amounts of nutritious foods, while allowing for other foods within reasonable limits. There is no such thing as a bad food. Certainly some foods are more nutrient-dense and are considered healthier, but all foods can fit into a plan in moderation.

The two main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Anorexia nervosa is a markedly-decreased appetite that can develop into a complete aversion to food. It is a physical and psychological disorder that is life-threatening. Bulimia is binge-eating followed by purging, and can include brief periods of anorexia. Bulimia is also a life-threatening disorder that increases one's risk for esophageal cancer.

An eating disorder, especially in the early stages, may not be easily identified, especially by the parent, sibling or dance teacher who sees a child day-in and day-out so physical changes are subtle.

A comprehensive list of signs of anorexia nervosa can be found here.  Some of the signs of anorexia are:
1- continued weight loss, when already thin
2- obsessive dieting
3- distorted body image
4- hair thinning or hair loss
5- wearing baggy or loose clothing to hide an already-too-thin body
6- talking obsessively about food

Some of the signs of bulimia are:
1- binge-eating
2- frequently using the bathroom after eating
3- stress-induced eating
4- frequent fluctuations in weight
5- depressed affect
6- wanting to eat alone
7- rapid eating

One of the earliest warning signs that a problem is emerging is when a child makes repeated comments about himself or others being overweight or fat, or other demonstrations of issues with body image. This is the time for parents and teachers to intervene and discuss healthy eating with children. There are steps that parents and dance instructors can take to help prevent eating disorders.

It is important to:
1- examine your own beliefs related to weight and body image - you are a role model
2- encourage healthy eating and model the behavior
3- discuss the dangers of dieting and the use of weight loss aids
4- don’t label foods as good or bad because all foods have a place in moderation

If it becomes evident that an eating disorder does exist, it's critical to get help immediately. It is almost impossible to change the child’s/student’s behavior alone, and may even do more harm than good.  Friends can share their concerns with a parent or teacher and adults should seek the help of professionals such as a pediatrician, nutritionist or school nurse.

Remember that eating disorders are both physical and psychological, with deeply-underlying emotions about self-image. It will take a team approach to treat and help the dancer overcome the disorder.

Note:  Portions of this post were previously printed in an article in Feis America Magazine by Kathleen M. Madigan.

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