First-of-its-kind book helps parents detect eating disorders

After two decades of specializing in healthcare for children and teens with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, two Toronto-area specialists have found a way to make it easier for parents to play a key role in their children’s treatment – an involvement they say is critical to help patients get well.

Their approach is detailed in a recently-published, first-of-its-kind book, called A Parent’s Guide to Defeating Eating Disorders – Spotting the Stealth Bomber and Other Symbolic Approaches, launched in late 2011. In it, co-authors Dr. Ahmed Boachie and Dr. Karin Jasper uniquely use metaphors, anecdotes and story telling based on real-life experiences, to hit home the severity of eating disorders – which have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness – and how parents can recognize warning signs in their children and teens before it’s too late.

Dr. Boachie, Clinical Director, and Dr. Karin Jasper, Clinical Mental Health Specialist and Research Coordinator, of the Eating Disorder Program at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket are raising awareness of their belief that early detection of eating disorders may play a significant role in recovery.  Frustrated that many youths are referred to their clinic only once they’re chronically ill and experiencing difficult-to-treat complications, they wrote the book “to educate parents that stopping the progression of the illness is actually possible and help them understand that they play the most important role in that process,” says Dr. Boachie.

Suffered by roughly five per cent of Canadian youth (90 per cent of whom are female, though male numbers may be growing, say the doctors) eating disorders have a mortality rate of up to 20 per cent. What’s more, a recent study by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre found that issues relating to eating disorders are on the rise, with almost half of grade nine and 10 girls perceiving themselves as being overweight, and almost 30 per cent actively trying to lose weight.

According to the Southlake doctors, there are five main signs parents should watch for to identify a child with an eating disorder:

1.    Weight loss or frequent changes in weight that may be accompanied by inappropriate dress (such as warm clothes in the summer or layered clothing at the beach).

2.    A visible change in eating patterns (for example, eating less, separating oneself from family members at meal times, excessive talking at meal time to detract attention from eating, cooking and baking for others but not eating what has been made).

3.    Increased use of the bathroom, especially after meals.

4.    A change in physical activity patterns (such as taking a dog for a walk even in bad weather).

5.    Complaints of continually feeling cold and tired.

“Most parents with kids who suffer from eating disorders experience a tremendous amount of guilt and anxiety,” says Dr. Boachie, yet he emphasizes that studies show there’s no known cause of the illness. “Our message to parents is that ‘it’s not your fault – let’s move beyond trying to identify the cause and concentrate on getting the child well. You know your child and we know eating disorders, so together as a team we can help her overcome this illness’.”

“Scientific concepts are difficult for people to grasp, so we create family-friendly scenarios using accessible language,” says Dr. Jasper, Clinical Mental Health Specialist and Research Coordinator at the Southlake Eating Disorder Program. “Just as comedians help us understand and laugh about things that are difficult to talk about, we can use metaphors and analogies to make eating disorders understandable, reduce parents’ self-blame, and help them focus their strengths in a way that facilitates their child’s recovery.”

Established in 1997 as the first day treatment program in Canada, Southlake’s Eating Disorder Program has become a model for other health care organizations across the country. Applying a multi-disciplinary approach to care, Southlake’s team of psychiatrists, pediatricians, social workers, nutritionists, psychologists, child and youth workers, and educators, have helped more than 500 anorexia and bulimia patients to date. The goal of Southlake’s program is to help
children and teens resume normal eating, restore their weight, eliminate dangerous weight loss practices, and resolve underlying psychological issues.

More information about eating disorders, Southlake’s Eating Disorder Program and how to order the book, can be found at