Department

The Fear of Food

Denver's Eating Recovery Center's new Behavioral Hospital for Children and Adolscents is one of the few of its kind in the country.

December 2011

For a place that’s supposed to be filled to capacity with kids, the one-story hospital—it looks and feels more like a modern neighborhood library—near the Lowry Town Center is quiet. The lounge with tables and chairs and a television in the corner is empty. The closet-size room where patients can go to make phone calls is silent. Even the long hallway of dormitory-style bedrooms seems abandoned. It’s only after poking farther down the corridor that the reason for the vacancy becomes clear: It’s lunchtime.

In any other setting where kids are present, lunch is a noisy, festive affair. Not here. These kids, 17 in total (16 girls, one boy), have come to this year-old facility to relearn how to consume food in a healthy way. To them—some of whom are dangerously under their optimal body weight, their eyes fixed downward as they contemplate the food in front of them—mealtime is an anxiety-inducing activity, one that can evoke the deep-seated emotional issues they are here to confront.

“In people with eating disorders,” explains Dr. Ovidio Bermudez, the medical director for the center’s child and adolescent services, “there is a gene-environment interaction. Approximately half of the risk for developing an eating disorder is genetic; the other half is psychosocial.” Bermudez—along with a staff of psychotherapists, nutritionists, nurses, art therapists, and teachers—has made it his life’s work to help kids overcome complicated disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and other abnormal eating habits. His new inpatient hospital, which is an offshoot of the Eating Recovery Center’s adult hospital located adjacent to Saint Joseph Hospital, is one of the few (if not the only) freestanding hospitals in the United States focused specifically on helping children and teenagers with eating disorders. “Eating disorders are a truly challenging illness from a clinical perspective because of their biological, psychological, and sociocultural aspects,” Bermudez says. “Plus, eating disorders affect a specific group of people within our society: individuals who are intelligent and often high-achieving. I have found that being part of their journey to recovery is an immensely rewarding experience.”

It seems odd that there’s a dearth of pediatric facilities like the ERC’s, especially when 90 percent of young American women who develop an eating disorder do so between the ages of 12 and 25. But it’s not only the 10 million American women who suffer from these diseases; nearly 1 million American men fight alongside them. For many, it’s a losing battle. In fact, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses in America.

Of course, Bermudez hopes to change that, at least for the children under his care here in Denver. Using a combination of traditional treatments like nutritional rehabilitation, medical stabilization, and psychotherapy, and more innovative approaches such as biofeedback instruments as well as family behavioral therapy, Bermudez aims to offer the best and most comprehensive treatment available. Experts and patients here in Colorado and around the country are taking notice. Since its opening a year ago this month, the center has been at or near capacity.

Five Facts About Eating Disorders Every Family Should Know

 

1

Children and adolescents with eating disorders can recover with the appropriate treatments.

 

2

Weight-focused sports could be potentially harmful.

Sports such as track and field, gymnastics, and wrestling involve a weight component to be competitive. Parents should emphasize the importance of practicing and training in a healthy manner.

3

Adolescents with anorexia or bulimia will likely display warning signs.

Adolescents with anorexia are often very driven high achievers. Warning signs that can be displayed include weight loss, avoidance of activities and friends, and anxiety about gaining weight or feeling fat. Individuals with bulimia may not be as recognizable by weight loss, but they often experience dramatic weight fluctuations. They may also try to hide purging behaviors by running water while in the restroom or brushing their teeth several times a day. They may also display cuts or scrapes on their knuckles and dental problems.

4

Families play an important role in recovery.

Studies show that by intervening when they see a problem and integrating recovery-focused behaviors into family life, families can become agents of change for their children in eating disorder recovery.

5

Eating disorders will often go hand-in-hand with other diseases.

Anorexia and bulimia can occur alongside mood disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, as well as a number of other behavioral conditions.

Source: Eating Recovery Center