Up to 10 million Americans—teen girls and women in their 20s, for the most part—can’t get food out of their minds. For some, it’s a deadly obsession. But early intervention brings hope, for the sooner an eating disorder is identified and treated, the better the chance for recovery. That’s why the information that follows may help you save a life. To learn more, read on.
While women may develop anorexia for various reasons, those with the disorder have one thing in common: the fear of becoming obese. That fear compels them to read about food, think about it, shop for it and even cook it—that is, anything short of eating it. In addition, they spend much of their spare time exercising.
Experts have identified certain traits that put women at risk for the disorder—the desire to be perfect, first and foremost. Before long, they realize that perhaps the only area over which they have total control is the way their body looks, so they refuse to eat. Even after reaching an abnormally low weight, anorexics think they’re overweight and won’t eat enough to return to a normal weight.
Not uncommonly, women with anorexia grew up in households where chronic dieting took place. That experience taught them to equate body shape with happiness. Often, they have a family history of alcoholism or depression.
Of course, depriving oneself of nutrients takes a toll on the body. Among the consequences of anorexia are:
- loss of 25 percent of one’s body weight
- lack of menstruation
- constipation and abdominal bleeding
- downy fuzz on face, limbs and body; loss of scalp hair
- low blood pressure
- dry skin, brittle hair
In severe cases, hospitalization is necessary to stabilize weight and body functions. That accomplished, therapists turn to a combination of individual psychotherapy, group counseling, nutritional counseling and family therapy all aimed at restoring self-esteem, a healthy body image and normal eating habits. It’s important to get treatment, as anorexia can be fatal.
While anorexics can’t bear the thought of eating, women with bulimia can’t resist the urge to binge. Typically, they experience their first episode during a stressful time. Perhaps they’re struggling at school or going through a divorce. Like anorexics, women with bulimia are afraid of getting fat, so after a binge they induce vomiting or use laxatives or enemas to purge themselves. Because the binge-purge cycle lets them maintain a normal weight, they’re often able to hide the disorder.
While anorexics think their behavior is normal, bulimics are aware of being caught in a dangerous cycle—they just don’t have the strength to break it. Often they go to great lengths to prepare for their binges, hoarding sweets and other “bad” foods. Many find a secret place to binge, like a closet. During a binge, which usually lasts about two hours, they may consume three to 30 times more than they might in a normal day. Afterward, they feel guilty and depressed.
But bad feelings aren’t the only aftermath of the binge-and-purge cycle. Over time, bulimia leaves its mark on the body, causing problems such as:
- liver and kidney damage
- internal bleeding and infection
- disruption of the body’s fluid and mineral balance, which can cause irregular heartbeat
- broken blood vessels in the face
- swollen glands in the neck
- loss of tooth enamel
- indigestion, bloating and constipation
Psychotherapy is usually the first line of treatment for women with bulimia. The goal is to change a bulimic’s body image and attitude toward food. She’s taught not to label foods “good” or “bad” and that it’s possible to enjoy all foods in moderation.
Through therapy, a woman with bulimia can identify emotions that trigger a binge, as well as food-free ways to cope with those feelings.
Although bulimia is not as life-threatening as anorexia, it’s harder to treat and relapses are common. Experts believe that a solid relationship with a therapist or physician may aid recovery.
For help, call the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders’ hotline at 847-831-3438, or for more information, visit www.anad.org.