Eating Disorders

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Anorexia is when a person tries to gain control of her life by controlling her weight, which by obsessive dieting and exercise may drop as much as 25%. Anorectics are often thin to the point of emaciation but are extremely afraid to gain weight. They may have symptoms caused by severe weight loss such as dry skin and hair, cold hands and feet, general weakness, constipation and other digestive problems, insomnia and loss of menstrual periods. As the weight loss progresses, more severe problems may develop such as increased susceptibility to infections, stress fractures and weakness of the heart muscle that can lead to death.

Bulimics binge and purge through self-induced vomiting, abusing laxatives and diuretics, fasting, or over-exercising. Most food bingers eat in order to suppress or deny uncomfortable feelings such as anger, depression, loneliness, or inadequacy. For most bulimics the intensity of the binge reflects the amount of painful emotions they want to avoid. Bulimics usually consume 10,000 to 20,000 calories or more per binge. For bulimics purging which provides an additional sense of relief and purification must quickly follow the calmness brought on by eating. Bulimics may be of average or slightly above average weight and usually do most of their binging and purging secretly. They also tend to have rapid weight gains and losses. Medical problems include dehydration, constipation and digestive disorders, severe dental problems and muscle weakness. As bulimia progresses, ulcers and life threatening heart irregularities may develop. Many anorectics may periodically binge and purge like bulimics and therefore may suffer from a combination of bulimia and anorexia.

It is fairly easy to distinguish compulsive overeating from normal eating as compulsive overeaters eat when they are not hungry and without much enjoyment. They feel a void that doesn't seem to get filled no matter how much food is consumed. They often eat in a frenzy, rapidly without tasting the food, unable to stop. Like bulimics, out-of-control eaters use food as a method of blocking out uncomfortable feelings. The medical complications that may arise are due to weight increases because of excess food intake. Such excess food intake can lead to obesity, which carries with it the problems of high blood pressure, labored breathing, and joint pain.

Cultural and psychological issues, personality traits, and learned behavior all contribute to eating disorders. The American culture encourages people to base self worth on body weight and shape, and if people do not live up to what they feel society expects they may see themselves as less valuable. Yet, at the same time, food is often used as a source of love and comfort and eating is often an important part of social events. The resulting confusion can lead to conflict about why and when to eat. People with eating disorders are often subject to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. They generally are perfectionists who feel inadequate, ashamed and guilty when they don't measure up to their own standards that are often unrealistic and based on rigid black and white thinking. An eating disorder is a learned coping skill used to avoid, or forget emotions that are threatening such as anger, depression, anxiety, or loneliness. Such behavior of avoiding emotions through unhealthy means may be learned from family or peers. Often, a parent of someone with an eating disorder abuses food, alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, eating disorders are fairly common, especially among college women. It is estimated that 5% to 20% of all college women suffer from an eating disorder. Only .5% to 1% of college men suffers from such disorders. In the general population 90% to 95% of people with eating disorders are women. Hospitalization may be necessary for people whose symptoms are particularly severe. Drug therapy may be indicated for people with any underlying long-term depression or anxiety. In addition, many people with eating disorders benefit from education about their basic nutritional needs. Therefore, a nutritional therapist can be an important part of the treatment approach.