Distorted body image and obsession with the “ideal” figure can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as eating disorders. Millions of people in the United States are affected by serious and sometimes life-threatening eating disorders, and the vast majority of those affected are adolescent and young adult women. The two most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is the deliberate and prolonged fasting (starvation) driven by a fear of gaining weight. Sufferers are usually extremely thin but believe they are overweight. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a destructive pattern of overeating followed by behaviors such as purging (throwing up), fasting, or excessive exercise.
What are the medical consequences?
Anorexia nervosa can lead to muscle weakness, anemia, hair loss, osteoporosis, low blood pressure, and drop in internal body temperature. For girls and women, anorexia can cause absence of menstruation, a condition known as amenorrhea. Studies have pointed out that people with anorexia are up to ten times more likely to die as a result of their illness. The most common complications that lead to death are heart attack and electrolyte and fluid imbalances.
For people with Bulimia, the binging (uncontrolled eating) and purging cycle usually repeats several times a week and can cause severe health problems. The purging aspect can lead to teeth sensitivity and decay, throat inflammation, and chronic heartburn. Other symptoms include electrolyte imbalance, severe dehydration, intestinal irritation, and kidney problems. Bulimic behaviors are usually done secretly and often cause feelings of disgust and shame.
Many people with eating disorders have coexisting psychiatric and physical problems, including depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, heart problems, and impaired physical development.
What are the risk factors?
Psychological factors that contribute to eating disorders include low self-esteem, feelings of lack of control in life, troubled family and personal relationships, and emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. In addition, eating disorders can be triggered by life events such as puberty, beginning of a school term, transition to a new job, the death of a friend or family member, and the breakup of a relationship. Stressful situations in any other aspect of life also make people more vulnerable to eating disorders.
How would I know if I have an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is characterized by extremes: sufferers experience severe disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme fasting, overeating, or feelings of extreme concern about body weight. However, sufferers usually start out by just eating smaller or larger portions of food than usual, but later the urge to eat less or more spirals out of control. Eating disorders are very complex and each type has different warning signs. If you experience any of the descriptions for eating disorders, do not hesitate to talk to your doctor or other healthcare providers. If you think a friend might be suffering from eating disorders, encourage him or her to seek help immediately. Many people with eating disorders resist treatment until it is too late. You could be saving a life!
Where can I find reliable information on eating disorders?
- National Eating Disorders Association: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
- National Institute of Mental Health – Eating Disorders: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/summary.shtml
- MayoClinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teen-eating-disorders/art-20044635