“I look like a normal, well-adjusted 15-year-old high school sophomore. I like talking to friends on the phone, riding my bike, watching TV, and spending time with my boyfriend. However, about a year ago, my weight dropped to 72 pounds. I lay in a hospital bed with unkempt hair, fragile limbs and a sunken face. I was seriously ill. The villainous disease was not cancer or AIDS. I had anorexia, a condition which afflicts many teens and young adults, especially young women.
It all started in late summer. I gradually cut back on what I was eating while being very active as a cheerleader. Soon the pounds began to fall away. At first, no one seemed to notice that I was losing weight. I preferred baggy clothes which hid my condition. Eventually, however, people began to notice my weight loss and soon, it was unmistakable. I became unusually fatigued and irritable and couldn’t concentrate. Then my grades fell. People noticed that I didn’t eat much, if at all. I was absent from school a lot. The people around me started to realize that I had a problem.
When my parents suggested that I had an eating disorder, I denied it. I became defensive when my friends expressed concern. Even after two doctors said I had anorexia, I denied it. I believed the only way to make myself well was to control my diet. My parents became tried forcing me to eat, they tried reasoning with me, and they even had my friends try to make me eat. Finally, they showed me an article about a TV star with anorexia. The actress’ story moved me. Somehow the article convinced me that what everyone had been saying was right. Before I read the article, I thought I was alone – I had never heard of anyone suffering from an eating disorder before. When I finally realized that I wasn’t alone it changed my life. For the first time, I realized that I had anorexia. While this realization was my first step to recovery, I still couldn’t beat the disease. By December, I weighed 82 pounds. In January, I was down to 72 pounds. The doctors warned me that if my weight dropped below 70 pounds, I would be at significant risk for major organ failure. My body would simply stop working. I was hospitalized for treatment. Luckily, I made rapid improvement. I voluntarily ate a carefully controlled diet. My weight gradually increased. I went to therapy both alone and with my family. After only a few weeks, I went back to school. I quickly regained all the weight I had lost. Not everyone recovers from anorexia and few recover as quickly as me. I am still in therapy. However, I will always be at risk for a setback but right now it looks like I will remain healthy.
None of my teachers helped until after I began to recover. I wish one of my teachers, counselors, or even my cheerleading coach had said something to me about my problem. The words, “you may have an eating disorder” would have influenced me more coming from one of them rather than from a friend or parent.
Maybe if a teacher or someone else had shown me the article about someone with anorexia, I would not have suffered so much. My teachers did help after I began to recover. They made my transition from the hospital to school as easy as they could. I urge teachers to look for students who might have an eating disorder – watch for students’ weight loss, extreme perfectionism, increased absences, poor concentration, and lowered grades. If you think that a student has an eating disorder, observe that student during lunchtime. Does she/he consume a reasonable amount of food? This observation can be very revealing.
What you can do to help a student who you think has an eating disorder depends on the kind of relationship you have with the student. If you are relatively close to the student, talk to him or her to show your concern. Telling the student about others who have had an eating disorder can be very helpful.
Certainly, you should refer the student to the school counselor. Educating students regarding these phenomena may be the most helpful thing a teacher can do (Holly).”
What you see in the story with Holly is only one example of an eating disorder. Eating Disorders are not just unique to young females: Males and females, of all ages, races, and ethnic groups are at risk. There are different kinds of eating disorders that can potentially affect anyone. The different types of eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Most people have at least heard of these diseases but are not sure what they are. What you might not know is, these disorders not only affect the physical appearance of a person but also cause extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors issues. The root of these problems comes from the individuals surrounding weight and food issues. Anorexia Nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Bulimia Nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a type of eating disorder not otherwise specified and is characterized by recurrent binge eating without the regular use of measures to counteract the binge eating.
Each year millions of people in the United States develop serious eating disorders. More than ninety percent of those people with eating disorders are adolescent and young adult women (Hoffman). Women are more likely to have an eating disorder due to their tendency to go on strict diets to achieve and “ideal” figure. Lee Hoffman, a staff member of the Office of Scientific Information (OSI), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), says that researchers have found that such stringent dieting can play a key role in triggering eating disorders.
Around one percent of adolescent girls develop anorexia nervosa; this is a disease in which the girls will literally almost starve to death. Another two to three percent of young women develop bulimia nervosa, a destructive pattern of excessive overeating followed by vomiting (Hoffman). These behaviors can occur in men and older women, but less often. One in ten cases of anorexia nervosa result in death from starvation, cardiac arrest, or suicide. Treatment is the key in helping people cope with an eating disorder. Increasing awareness of the dangers of eating disorders has led many people to seek help.
Someone who intentionally starves themselves suffer from anorexia. This disorder usually beings around puberty. Rapid weight loss accompanies this disease, normally at least fifteen percent below the individual’s normal body weight. People who are anorexic deny the fact that they are hungry even if they haven’t eaten all day. They also develop food rituals like eating food in certain orders, excessive chewing, or rearranging food on their plate. Another symptom of anorexia is withdrawal from usual friends and activities. Anorexics have great anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat.” People with anorexia look very thin but when they look in the mirror they are convinced they are overweight. Many people with anorexia must be hospitalized to prevent starvation. For some with anorexia, they won’t eat even after suffering from terrible hunger pains. People with anorexia continue to think they are overweight even when they are bone-thin. Food and weight become obsessions. Many people with anorexia stick to strict exercise routines to keep off the weight.
When a person is anorexic the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally. “Loss of monthly menstrual periods is typical in women, and men with anorexia often become impotent,” says Hoffman. The body then slows down all of its processes to conserve energy. Slow heart rate and low blood pressure forces the heart muscles to change. According to Nationaleatingdisorders.com, “the risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels lower.” Osteoporosis is also a common side effect of anorexia due to reduction of bone density. Osteoporosis causes bones to be dry and brittle. Anorexia also causes muscle loss and weakness, severe dehydration, kidney failure, fainting, fatigue, dry hair and skin, and hair loss. As a defense mechanism, the body produces a furry layer of hair called lanugo, all over the body, including the face, to try and keep the body warm.
Bulimia nervosa is a disease in which a person eats large amounts of food and then gets rid of the excess calories by vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics, taking enemas, or exercising obsessively (Hoffman). Some people even use a combination of all these forms. This form of eating disorder can often be successfully hide because most people with bulimia binge and purge in secret. Typically around half of those with anorexia develop bulimia. Bulimia, like anorexia, begins normally during adolescence and normally occurs in women.
Binge and purge cycles of bulimia can affect the entire digestive system and can lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances in the body that affect the heart and other major organ functions. Electrolyte imbalances can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death. An electrolyte imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium, sodium and chloride from the body. There is also a chance for gastric rupture during periods of bingeing. Also inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting can occur. Another common side effect of bulimia is tooth decay and staining caused by stomach acids that are exposed when vomiting. When abusing laxatives chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation as can result.
Bingeing is also a form of an eating disorder. This type varies from bulimia because the person will eat uncontrollably but does not purge the excess food. People who binge lose control of themselves when they are eating. They eat large portions of food and do not stop until they are uncomfortably full. It is extremely hard for someone who binges to lose weight and keep it off. Most people with bingeing are obese and have a history of weight fluctuations. Binge eating disorders are found in around two percent of the general population. Bingeing often results in many of the same health risks as clinical obesity. High blood pressure and high cholesterol levels occur. Heart disease, as a result of elevated triglyceride levels and type II diabetes mellitus are also common side effects of bingeing.
There are many causes of eating disorders. Scientists have studied the personalities, genetics, environments, and biochemistry of people with these illnesses (Hoffman). Most people with eating disorders show similar traits, including: low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness, and a fear of becoming fat. People with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders use eating behaviors to handle stress and anxieties. Researchers say that typically people with anorexia tend to be “too good to be true.” Anorexics restrict food in order to gain some control over a part of their lives. People who followed the wishes of others have not learned how to handle the problems of adolescence, growing up, and becoming independent. When someone is anorexic they are able to take control of their bodies and gain approval from others. People who develop bulimia and binge eating eat to reduce stress and relieve anxiety (Hoffman). When people binge eat, they acquire guilt and depression. Purging brings temporary relieve but it does not last long.
Eating disorders appear to run in families and females are most commonly affected. There are many influences that can have and affect on eating disorders, including behavioral and environmental influences. According to Hoffman, “a recent study found that mothers who are overly concerned about their daughters’ weight and physical attractiveness many put the girls at increased risk of developing an eating disorder.”
Most often anorexia and bulimia are found in Caucasians. People pursuing professions or activities that emphasize thinness, like modeling, dancing, gymnastics, and running are more susceptible to the problem. In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. Though most athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk. One-third to one-fourth of all people with binge eating disorders are men. Bingeing is equal among races.
When it seems like just about everything can trigger an eating disorder, some of us may be asking ourselves “what can be done to prevent eating disorders?” To prevent something from happening means to attempt to change the circumstances that promote, initiate, sustain, or intensify problems like eating disorders. To do this, the most primary step would be to promote healthy development from an early age. After this, the second step of prevention (sometimes called “targeted prevention”) refers to programs or efforts that are designed to promote the early identification of an eating disorder, which is to recognize and treat an eating disorder before it spirals out of control. The earlier an eating disorder is discovered and addressed, the better the chance for recovery.
Prevention efforts will fail, or worse, inadvertently encourage disordered eating, if they concentrate solely on warning the public about the signs, symptoms, and dangers of eating disorders. Effective prevention programs must also address matters such as our society’s constant obsession with being thin, and helping the development of peoples’ self-esteem and self-respect in all areas in life whether it is at school, in a job, or at home. All of these issues can help trigger eating disorders. Making the general public more aware of what causes eating disorders and being able to identify them is the best way to help them be prevented.
Eating disorders are serious and complex problems. We need to be careful to avoid thinking of them in uncomplicated terms, like “anorexia is just a plea for attention,” or “bulimia is just an addiction to food.” Eating disorders arise from a variety of physical, emotional, social, and familial issues, all of which need to be addressed for effective prevention and treatment. The most effective and long-lasting treatment for an eating disorder is some form of psychotherapy or counseling, coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs. Ideally, this treatment should be tailored to the individual and will vary according to both the severity of the disorder and the patient’s individual problems, needs, and strengths (NEDA). Psychological counseling must address the psychological, interpersonal, and cultural forces that contribute to, or maintain the eating disorder. A Psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, nutritionist, or physician usually cares for people with eating disorders. Nutritional counseling is necessary to help change the unhealthy eating habits to healthy ones. Group and family therapy can also be very helpful in treating eating disorders. When an eating disorder leads to physical problems, inpatient care is necessary. This means when the problem is life-threatening, or when an eating disorder has reached a level of severe psychological or behavioral problems (NEDA).
“The ABCs of Eating Disorders” by Lee Hoffman. Eating Disorders. Myra H. Immell, Ed. Contemporary Issues Companion Series. Greenhaven Press, 1999. NIH Publication no. 93-3477, January 1993.
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Hoffman, Lee. “EATING DISORDERS: ANOREXIA NERVOSA.” 1993: (24-27, 56).
Holly. “Teacher Talk.” Center of Adolescent and Family Studies. 1996. 08/05/06
Levine and Maine, Michael and Margo. “Eating Disorders Can Be Prevented! .” National Eating Disorders Association. National Eating Disorders Association . 7 May 2007