Eating Disorders – A North American Epidemic

Eating Disorders – A North American Epidemic

Eating Disorders – A North American Epidemic

Is it just my observation, or is there a great amount of pressure in North America to look…perfect? It seems that several women desperately work to look like the abnormally thin models that stroll down the runways on fashion television, or the women in magazines who are airbrushed to perfection. The reality is that many people, mostly women, are obsessed with their looks, particularly their weight. For some, especially adolescent females, the obsession to look thin could result in an eating disorder. What is frightening is that eating disorders are not just serious, they can be deadly. In fact, eating disorders are the most life threatening of all psychiatric conditions. It is estimated that 6% of persons with eating disorders will die from these disorders.

Eating disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. The National Eating Disorders Information Center estimates prevalence rates of 1-2% for anorexia nervosa and 3-5% for bulimia nervosa. About 2 percent of all adults in America (as many as 4 million Americans) have binge eating disorder. Girls and women make up the overwhelming majority of those with anorexia and bulimia; males represent 10% of the cases. Binge eating disorder is a little more common in women than in men; three women for every two men have it. Eating disorders represent the third most common chronic illnesses among adolescent females, affecting up to one in twenty women.

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by extreme weight loss from a self-imposed and severe restriction of foods and fluids, a distorted body image, an intense fear of becoming fat, and low self-esteem. Half of those who are anorexic, binge and purge (binge = uncontrolled eating or gorging; purging = self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives or diuretics, excessive eating, or other means to remove consumed food from the body). Most struggling with this eating disorder don’t realize how underweight and undernourished they are despite comments from other people. Even after reducing to dangerously low weights, individuals with anorexia feel better temporarily after losing weight, will continue to “feel fat”, and will be convinced they need to lose even more weight.

Bulimia Nervosa is distinguished by regular periods of uncontrolled binge eating followed by some form of purging such as self-induced vomiting and abuse of laxatives or diuretics in an attempt to prevent weight gain. Dieting usually follows an episode of binging and purging and often results in feelings of deprivation and hunger, which may trigger another binge. Individuals with bulimia may initially lose weight but will likely regain it because of the ineffectiveness of purging methods.

Binge Eating Disorder is the newest clinically recognized eating disorder. It is primarily identified by repeated episodes of uncontrolled eating. The overeating or bingeing does not typically stop until the person is uncomfortably full. Unlike anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, however, it is not associated with inappropriate behaviors such as vomiting or excessive exercise to rid the body of extra food.

No one knows for sure what causes an Eating Disorder. Whether depression causes an eating disorder or whether an eating disorder causes depression is not known. Low self-esteem is regularly associated with anorexia and bulimia. Many people with a binge eating disorder say that being angry, sad, bored, or worried can cause them to binge eat. Impulsive behavior (acting quickly without thinking) and certain other emotional problems can be more common in people with eating disorders.

Also tied to these disorders are a sense of emptiness and lack of emotional intimacy in relationships. It is also thought that an abnormality in the hypothalamus can be a cause of anorexia. Most importantly, eating disorders are about personal pain and recovery is about healing feelings.

So, are eating disorders the newest North American Epidemic? It seems to be so. The number of women affected by these illnesses has doubled in the past three decades. One specialist reports that it is not uncommon now to see preschool children concerned about their weight and body shape. One extreme example is a two-year-old child who is obsessed with getting on the bathroom scales (just like Mommy) then saying that she has to stop eating (just like Mommy). As well, more boys than ever are struggling with these disorders and people of all different ethnic and racial backgrounds are now suffering. It appears that the disease is spreading.

The denial of the problem makes it difficult to convince individuals to seek help.

However, people with an eating disorder need to get help from health professionals. Anyone struggling with a diagnosed eating disorder requires a team approach that includes a therapist, dietician, and medical doctor.

Are you or a loved one struggling with an Eating Disorder? The following is a non-diagnostic, non-exhaustive checklist to help you identify an eating disorder that might be affecting yourself or someone else.

A person with anorexia may

  • Eat an unusually small amount of food.
  • Eat only “safe” foods, low in calories and fat.
  • Have odd eating habits/unusual food rituals, such as measuring food.
  • Spend more time playing with food than eating it.
  • Have a preoccupation with dieting, cookbooks, and/or diet books
  • Cook meals for others without eating.
  • Exercise to excess.
  • Dress in layers to hide weight loss.
  • Spend less time with family and friends.
  • Become withdrawn and secretive.

A person with bulimia may

  • Become very secretive about food and eating behaviour.
  • Spend a lot of time thinking about and planning the next eating binge.
  • Consume a large amount of food.
  • Keep making trips to the bathroom after eating.
  • Steal food or hoard it in strange places.
  • Eat to excess.
  • Withdraw from relationships.
  • Have a preoccupation with food/dieting

A person with binge-eating disorder may

  • Become very secretive about food and eating behaviour.
  • Spend a lot of time thinking about and planning the next eating binge.
  • Start eating alone most of the time.
  • Steal food or hoard it in strange places.
  • Eat to excess.
  • Become overweight.
  • Become withdrawn, not wanting to go out or see family and friends.
  • Consume large amounts of food.

Common characteristics of people with an eating disorder

  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Difficulty expressing emotions or needs
  • Obsessive thoughts about food
  • People pleaser/hard time saying no to others – want to make everyone else happy without focusing on self
  • Depression
  • Perfectionism
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Feel life would be better if thinner
  • Secretive Behaviour
  • Sleep Disturbances

If you are suffering and would like to make the courageous step of getting help, or receive advise on how to help a person you know who is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact Bayridge Family Center. There are professionals available to help you. What a gift it would be to begin on the journey of recovery and to have a competent, caring professional to accompany you or your loved one on the road to wholeness.

Lynne Fenton , B.A. (Psychology), MDiv (Counselling)
Therapist – Adolescent and Individual Therapy

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