Eating disorders could have a lifelong impact
March 30, 2016
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Everyone needs food to survive. For most people, food is simply a necessity and, for the most part, harmless. For others, however, it is a potentially life-threatening obsession.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that affect millions of people in the United States. These disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). Eating disorders affect people of every gender, age, race, sex and background. Unfortunately, most sufferers do not obtain professional treatment. Without treatment, up to 20 percent of sufferers will die from complications related to their disorder, according to Mirasol.net. With treatment, the mortality rate is reduced to about two percent.
Anorexia nervosa is one of the most well-known eating disorders, affecting people of all genders. Sufferers of it attempt to lose significant amounts of weight, or maintain an extremely low weight, generally through starvation, extreme calorie restriction or excessive exercise. Some anorexics use vomiting after meals, laxatives or exercise to avoid gaining weight. People with anorexia nervosa often feel that they are overweight or see themselves as such despite the weight loss. They may develop rigid food-related rituals, such as cutting food into very small pieces or spitting it out after chewing it. Signs that someone may be anorexic include dry or yellowish skin, thinning hair, significant or rapid weight loss, an extremely thin appearance, dizziness, fainting, refusal to eat in front of others or in public, denial of hunger and lying about their eating habits. Anorexia nervosa can result in a myriad of health problems, including organ failure, osteoporosis, infertility, anemia, irregular heartbeat, cardiac arrest and even death.
Anorexia nervosa can be caused by far more than just a wish to be thin. It often stems from anxiety or perfectionism in the sufferer, or from the desire to be in control of something in their life. It can also develop in response to such things as abuse, trauma, peer pressure or societal beauty standards. Anorexia nervosa commonly exists alongside mental illnesses like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety disorders and personality disorders. People who have family members with anorexia nervosa are at a greater risk of developing it themselves. Another risk factor is being involved in activities that encourage being thin, such as ballet, or being pressured by family or society to be “perfect” or an overachiever.
Bulimia nervosa is another well-known eating disorder. It is characterized by binging, or consuming a very large amount of food in a short period of time, and purging, or attempting to rid oneself of the calories consumed. Many bulimia sufferers purge by inducing vomiting, but purging can also be done with laxatives, diuretics and exercise. Unlike anorexia nervosa, whose sufferers are dangerously underweight, bulimia sufferers are usually at a normal, healthy weight, as purging does not rid the body of all of the calories consumed; once food is in the stomach, at least some of the calories are absorbed before purging. Their habits, however, are certainly not healthy. Vomiting frequently can lead to erosion of teeth and enamel, as well as abrasions in the esophagus and ruptured blood vessels in the eyes from the force of the act. Excessive use of laxatives can harm the digestive system, potentially making it difficult to use the bathroom without them or even resulting in hemorrhoids. Overuse of diuretics can damage the kidneys. Frequent purging can result in general fatigue and weakness. Bulimia nervosa can also cause electrolyte imbalances, anemia, irregular heartbeat, pregnancy complications and infertility.
A staff member at Harding, who has asked to remain anonymous, recounted her experience with bulimia nervosa. “I dabbled in bulimia in high school,” she said. “I remember my cousin, when [I was] in about fifth or sixth grade. She was a few years older than me… She kind of became anorexic for a while. I hung out with her all the time, so she was a big influence on me. We would work out together.”
When the staff member was in high school, she engaged in some bulimic behaviors. “I remember I would work out right after I’d eat because it made me feel like I wanted to throw up,” she said. “So I kind of dabbled with throwing up in high school… The big problem started in college. I was pretty healthy for the most part, but I was working out and eating low-fat and no-fat diet-type stuff, and I lost a ton of weight. The problem with losing weight is that when people notice you, you really feed off of those comments they make. In your mind you think, ‘I must have been fat before.’ In your mind you think, ‘Well if people think I look really good now, then I have to do everything I can not to gain weight.’ So it becomes a cycle, and you lose more weight and you like the feeling of it. When I graduated from college, I had a roommate that I didn’t like. I started working out more and not increasing what I ate… [I was] working out four to five hours every day. The whole time, I was dabbling in bulimia. I ended up getting down to 103 pounds fully clothed… I almost died.”
The staff member recovered, slowly but surely, from her eating disorder after she became pregnant. “I was still bulimic [when I was married], but I don’t think my husband even knew about it… Then, we ended up pregnant. For the first time I started taking days off from working out, and I would work out a little less. I was taking care of a child inside of me, so I just couldn’t be bulimic anymore. It’s always something you still think about, but it got to the point where I wasn’t just taking care of myself.”
Binge-eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders. Most of its sufferers are overweight or obese. As its name implies, it is characterized by frequent food binges not followed by purging. These binges typically occur at least once a week and over a two-hour period. During the binges, the sufferer consumes an abnormally large amount of food in a short time, usually eating until they are uncomfortably full. Often the sufferer feels that they have no control over their eating during a binge. People with binge-eating disorder typically feel ashamed, guilty or embarrassed about their binges. They may eat when they are not hungry. They may eat alone because they are ashamed of their binging. Typically, people with the disorder will show distress regarding their behaviors. Binge-eating disorder most commonly begins in the late teens or early twenties, but it can occur at any age. It can be caused by such factors as childhood abuse, trauma, low self-esteem, depression and childhood obesity.
Eating disorders not otherwise specified, or EDNOS, are eating disorders that do not meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder, although they may have characteristics of one or more. There is wide variation between each EDNOS sufferer, but they are generally categorized by three groups: symptoms of either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, a mixture of both, or completely atypical eating habits not characteristic of either disorder. For example, someone with EDNOS may frequently chew their food and then spit it out without swallowing, or they may meet most criteria for bulimia nervosa but purge less than twice a week. EDNOS is the most common eating disorder, affecting about 60 percent of eating disorder sufferers. Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, EDNOS can be caused by a variety of things, including low self-esteem, anxiety, abuse, peer pressure, bullying and having a family member with the disorder.
One sophomore, who asked to remain anonymous, has never been diagnosed with an eating disorder but displays characteristics of both anorexia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. He said that his disorder involves starving himself for several days at a time, followed by large binges. “It began because I noticed that I was the always the fat one in my group of friends and that I didn’t fit in, and I thought of I was skinny then I would fit in and people would notice me,” he said. “It started off by just trying to lose a couple pounds, and then I became obsessed and soon it wasn’t good enough.”
The sophomore said that his eating disorder is more than simply wanting to be thinner. He said that he believed all aspects of his life would be better if he were thin. “There’s something more to it,” he said. “When I started losing weight I thought all my problems would be solved and I would be liked more if I was skinny and attractive. I thought things would be handed to me.”
Resources are available to people who have eating disorders. At Harding, there are counselors and social workers every day who are willing to listen and help. There are also helplines that sufferers can call.
1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) (National Suicide Prevention Hotline)