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Recognizing and Preventing Eating Disorders

What Can Be Done To Prevent Eating Disorders

Being a cheerleader, member of the debate team, starter on both the volleyball and softball teams and having the "star quarterback" as a boyfriend, Cassie seemed to have the life that every high school girl dreams of. However, Cassie's life was cut short when she died from complications of bulimia shortly after Christmas her senior year of high school.

Cassie's story is not unique. According to the National Eating Disorders Screening Program, an estimated 3,000 young women die each year from complications due to eating disorders, namely anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. These numbers appear small in relation to the total population. But it's believed that more than half of the young females that suffer from either of these eating disorders are never diagnosed, resulting in incomplete statistics.

Common Disorders

Anorexia nervosa, more commonly known as "anorexia" or "self-starvation," is an eating disorder in which a person develops a preoccupation with diet, weight and being thin. Developing this preoccupation can lead to an excessive loss of weight as a result of decreased consumption of food and water. The amount of weight an anorexic may lose can be as much as 15 percent of their total body weight. The disorder of anorexia can result in various, often serious, medical consequences. Examples of medical conditions that can result include dehydration, loss of monthly menstrual period, hair loss, weakness, fatigue, heart tremors and shortness of breath.

Eating disorders primarily affect young women between the ages of 12 and 25. Those suffering from anorexia will appear very thin or underweight and may hide their appearance with oversized, loose clothing. Anorexics may not recognize their own problem. It is estimated that one percent of teenaged girls will develop anorexia, and 10 percent of those will die from complications of the disorder.

Bulimia nervosa, known more popularly as "bulimia," is described as a disorder that revolves around episodes of bingeing, or consuming large amounts of heavy, fatty or sweet foods at one sitting, and purging, which means ridding the body of all the food consumed. The practice of purging may involve self-induced vomiting or excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, or water pills. Similar to an anorexic, a bulimic develops a preoccupation with food, weight and appearance. However, bulimics will also develop an intense pattern of guilt and shame related to their food intake. Serious medical complications can arise from the disorder of bulimia as well. Mood swings, swollen glands of the neck and face, vomiting blood, dental problems and irregular menstrual periods are just a few of the complications that can occur in bulimics.

Young girls and women are the most common group affected by bulimia, but it is not unusual for young male athletes or gay men to develop bulimia as well. Bulimics will not always appear thin, and may actually be slightly overweight. The "guilt" patterns that develop with bulimics usually result in eating in secret and hoarding or hiding food for later bingeing episodes. Bulimics may carry large amounts of breath mints or tooth care products to hide the fact that they purge. According to the National Eating Disorders Screening Program, 25 percent of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.

According to the American Center for Disease and Disorders Research, the numbers of practicing anorexics and bulimics are quite higher for some "populations" such as sorority members, cheerleaders and models. In addition, the age at which the practices of anorexia and bulimia begin have decreased from the average age of 14 to the age of 12. Some experts site current trends that push that age even lower.

Common Path

Carrie was diagnosed as bulimic at the age of 16, but says that the "rituals" of bulimia began much sooner. "I developed at a young age, 11, in the fifth grade," she says. "When I began getting breasts and filling out, so to speak, I saw myself as getting fat. It didn't matter that I wasn't gaining weight...I still saw myself as fat each and every time that I looked in the mirror."

Carrie says she began exercising and dieting, but when she did not lose weight, she began the binge-purge cycle of bulimia. "I would do this at least three or four times a day," she says. "Afterward, I would weigh myself and look in the mirror. I can remember thinking, 'Nope, still fat!'"

The American Center for Eating Disorders says that those with eating disorders tend to see themselves as one size – overweight – regardless of what size they are in reality, because anorexics and bulimics have a "distorted self image, and when they look in the mirror they see what their mind tells them, not their eyes."

Dr. Keseleler, a psychologist in Richmond, Va., reports that bulimics, unlike anorexics, are aware that they have a problem and feel guilt or depression after a bingeing episode. "Those that suffer from these eating disorders usually have a fear of being overweight due to some outside influence ... social status, family or peer pressure, or the requirements for athletics, whether real or self-produced," he says. "A person suffering from either of these disorders will see their weight problem as an imperfection. Anorexics and bulimics alike have been noted as being 'perfectionists' in most all areas of their lives – school, work, sports and home-life – and view being overweight as not being perfect."

Kimberly, a high school sophomore at Dale High School in Virginia, says, "You don't have a choice but to look 'good' anymore. All the heavy people are picked on or are made fun of. If you want to be popular, you have to be skinny."

Common Preventions

What can be done to prevent both anorexia and bulimia? This question does not have a definitive answer because these disorders are not fully understood. It is not known why girls and boys of the same family can have varying opinions of themselves, as well as one having an eating disorder while others do not. Parents can help by setting a good example and teaching their children the importance of good nutrition. Being happy with your appearance, eating healthy, remaining active and refraining from placing unnecessary emphasis on weight will allow children to learn from their parents to have a healthy, realistic view of themselves and others.

If you suspect your child may have a problem regarding eating, consult a family physician. Ignoring the problem or thinking that it will go away on its own may only cause the child more medical complications.

Carrie is now 29, the mother of three and a registered nurse. Although she has had her eating disorder under control for some time, she says she fights with it almost daily. "It's still a problem," she says. "Whenever a situation in my life feels too big to handle, I want to eat a ton of ice cream, chips and chocolate. I will admit that when I see a beautiful, thin woman on television or in a magazine, I will remember what I used to look like 'then' compared to now. It is almost enough to shame me back into my rituals again. It's a battle every day not to do it. It's a tough battle, but right now, I'm winning."

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