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What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are treatable conditions. Symptoms include a troubled relationship with food characterized by fasting, purging, and/or bingeing behaviors and recurring inappropriate compensatory behavior to reduce or control weight through excessive exercise, laxative misuse, and self-induced vomiting. The variety of concerns experienced can include an intense fear of gaining weight, distress over body size and shape, depression, moodiness, low self-esteem, and perfectionism.
Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and many other unspecified types. It is very important to see professionals, such as physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and registered nutritionists, for accurate diagnosis and treatment. Our society, with its obsession with thinness and obtaining the perfect body, has cultivated the development of eating disorders. Research studies found that 52% of adolescents begin dieting before age 14. Among college females, 78% reported bingeing experiences and 8.2% used self-induced vomiting to control weight.
There are, however, myths about eating disorders that add to the problem and prevent individuals from getting treatment for this potentially life-threatening condition.
Eating Disorder Myths
SINCE WOMEN COLLEGE STUDENTS ARE USUALLY INTELLIGENT AND WELL- EDUCATED, THEY ARE A LOW-RISK GROUP FOR EATING DISORDERS.
While many women college students are expected to be competitive and successful, they also feel the demand to remain feminine and "desirable." Such demands may create conflicts and feelings of being overwhelmed. This can be a factor in why they develop problematic relationships with food. The relationship leads to restricting food intake to attain desirable slimness and femininity and sometimes to indulging in food to comfort emotional distress.
ONLY FEMALES HAVE EATING DISORDERS.
Among the college student population, a reported 1% to 7% of male students suffer from eating disorders; among the general population, the estimate is 5%. Some research findings suggested that men and women with an eating disorder have similar clinical characteristics, such as an obsession with thinness, distorted body image, and emotional problems. They also share similar causal factors, such as socioeconomic status, family dynamics, and a history of weight disturbance. Although men are considered a low-risk group for eating disorders, partly because they are not under as much social pressure to be slim and thin, we should be aware of the "Pursuit of Fitness" among many men. This may lead to obsessive-compulsive thinking and behaviors, low self-esteem, and distorted body image, characteristics of eating disorders. It should also be noted that male athletes are at a higher risk for eating disorders, as are those in disciplines where maintenance of weight is considered important. In these populations, such disorders are far more commonplace.
"FAT-ISM" IS NONEXISTENT. FAT PEOPLE HAVE NO ONE TO BLAME BUT THEMSELVES.
Unfortunately, "fat-ism" is predominant in our society without our being aware of its existence. Like racism and sexism, fat-ism is a prejudice based on physical characteristics. Many of us consider fatness equivalent to laziness, dumbness, ugliness, self-indulgence, and lack of will power. Negative comments about the physical appearance of individuals who are overweight are judgmental and unfair. "Fat-ism" implies narrow-mindedness and an inability to appreciate the variety of body shapes and sizes that are largely predetermined by biological factors such as age, gender, race, and heredity.
REPEATED WEIGHT-LOSS DIETING ENSURES PERMANENT WEIGHT CONTROL.
- When the body is faced with constant deprivation, it automatically tries to conserve energy by slowing down the metabolism, instead of continuing to burn body fat. The longer people stay on low calorie diets, the longer it takes for their metabolism to return to normal. Thus, dieting predisposes people to rapid weight gains immediately following the loosening of food restriction.
- Evidence indicates that when people lose weight, they lose fat and protein, but when they regain, they regain mostly fat.
- When weight is lost, the fat cells shrink, but when weight is regained, fat cells multiply. These "fattening" effects of weight loss are referred to as "overcompensation" that may mean the intention and effort to lose weight becomes a "never-win" distress.
The fact is, repeated weight-loss dieting leads to higher and higher weight gains. Based on current statistics, after two years, 95% of dieters regain all their lost weight plus about ten extra pounds; and after five years, 98% of dieters regain all their lost weight plus about ten extra pounds.
WITH A SENSIBLE DIET AND A STRONG COMMITMENT, EVERYONE CAN BECOME AND REMAIN THIN.
- Fatness is caused by lifestyle. The fact is that fatness most often is due to heredity and metabolism and not everyone can be as thin as they want to be, no matter how strong their commitment is.
- A sensible diet (i.e., a low calorie diet) can control weight gains. The fact is that such a diet may lead to more weight gain, as mentioned in the previous myth. Through a healthy diet and regular exercise, some weight loss may be expected: however, most women, no matter how hard they try, will always be heavier than "model thin." The truism here is that thinness is a prevailing unhealthy obsession in our society and we tend to mislabel thinness as "happy ever after."
This statement implies several faulty assumptions:
- EATING DISORDERS CANNOT BE FATAL.
Many have heard about people, such as singer Karen Carpenter, who have died of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and weakened immunity and heart function due to undernutrition. Based on the information provided by the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, an estimated one percent of U.S. teenagers suffer from anorexia and up to ten percent of these will die. Fatal dangers for both anorexics and bulimics include gastric ruptures, cardiac arrhythmias, and heart failure. Many other medical complications are not necessarily fatal, but can lead to permanent physical and neurological damages. For example, in an effort to reduce weight and maintain energy without eating, many individuals with eating disorders turn to laxatives and dieting pills. Side effects of inappropriate use of laxatives are dry skin due to dehydration, abdominal cramping, muscle cramps, and electrolyte imbalances which affect neurological functioning. Daily use of dieting pills may lead to rebound fatigue and overeating, insomnia, mood changes, irritability, and in extremely large doses, psychosis (Johnson & Connors, 1987).
- ONLY THOSE WHO ARE APPARENTLY UNDERWEIGHT OR OVERWEIGHT MAY HAVE OR WILL HAVE EATING
It is inaccurate to judge if someone does or does not have an eating disorder simply by their appearance and weight. What is important to remember is that eating disorders are often characterized by a set of psychological symptoms: distorted body image, obsession with losing weight, distress over body size and shape, perfectionism, and emotional difficulties. These psychological symptoms are not necessarily reflected in a person's weight.
- ONLY THE MENTALLY ILL WILL DEVELOP EATING DISORDERS.
The cause of eating disorders is believed to be a combination of biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors. To date, we know women are much more likely to have eating disorders than men. Women f color may be as vulnerable as Caucasian women to developing eating disorders. Adolescents and young adults are an especially high-risk group, especially if they are achievement-oriented. People engaged in sports or artistic activities that require careful maintenance of body weight (such as wrestling, gymnastics, and dancing) are more likely to develop eating disorders. Generally speaking, eating disorders can develop in any person. The good news is that eating disorders can be prevented and successfully treated, but they must be taken seriously as they can be life-threatening.
- BECAUSE PEOPLE WITH EATING DISORDERS TEND TO REMAIN SECRETIVE ABOUT THEIR EATING BEHAVIORS,
IT IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO DETECT AND HELP THIS POPULATION.
It is not uncommon for people to engage in bingeing and/or purging behaviors for years before their family or friends notice a problem. Learning about eating disorders may help to detect early warning signs, including frequent use of bathrooms right after meals, vigorous exercise, preoccupation with body weight and constant weighing. Knowledge about medical complications, such as hair loss, complaints of sore throat and bloating stomach, fatigue and muscle weakness, tooth decay, and swelling, can help to identify this disorder. The most challenging task is to confront the person who denies having an eating disorder. Because so much shame, guilt, and extreme fear of loss of body control is involved, acknowledging the problem can be very terrifying. Direct and supportive communications as well as consultation and help from professionals (such as physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and nutritionists) often lead to the successful initiation of the treatment and recovery process.
If you think you need help, come see one of the professionals in the Student Health Center (585-395-2414) or the Counseling Center (585-395-2207). Recognizing this problem is the first step to the treatment and recovery process, and we can help.