Eating Disorders Pose a Serious Health Risk, Often Go Untreated

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Bombarded by images of thin celebrities, many young adults are starving themselves to achieve the same look.  And while medical experts understand the implications of extreme eating habits, most are unaware that the desire to be so thin could kill them.

As many as 24 million Americans of all ages and genders struggle with an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc.  “Teenagers and young women are the most common sufferers, but eating disorders can start in pre-adolescence and continue into adulthood,” explained F. Gregory Harris, MD, medical director for Lane Behavioral Health Services in Baker.  “Ten to fifteen percent of people with eating disorders are male.” 

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, February 26 through March 3, focuses on preventing eating disorders and the body image issues that fuel them while also advocating for better access to treatment.  This awareness week is aimed at helping those with eating issues to seek medical or psychological help. 

While some eating disorders become chronic conditions, research has shown that people who receive proper treatment can recover.  However, only about one in 10 people with eating disorders seek treatment. 

“Treatment may include individual, group or family psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medications that address depression, anxiety and other co-existing disorders,” says Dr. Harris.  “In some cases, hospitalization and forced nutritional intervention may be necessary if the situation is life-threatening.”  

An eating disorder is characterized by serious disruptions in a person’s everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating.  The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.

People suffering from anorexia nervosa restrict the type and amount of food they eat to avoid gaining weight.  Even if they become extremely thin, they may still strive to lose weight because they perceive themselves as fat and fear putting on pounds.

With bulimia nervosa, people will eat unusually large amounts of food.  This out-of-control binge eating is followed by compensating behaviors.  These include self-induced vomiting – called purging – overuse of laxatives or diuretics, excessive exercise, fasting or several of these behaviors combined.

Binge eating involves excessive overeating without purging or partaking in other behaviors to compensate for the food intake.  As a result, binge eaters may become overweight or even obese, which can promote serious cardiovascular and other health issues.  

A person of any age who shows the following behaviors or symptoms should see a doctor for assessment:

  • Eating small portions or refusing food all together   
  • Inability to objectively gauge body weight
  • Obsession with being or becoming fat
  • Strenuous or excessive exercising
  • Hoarding and hiding food
  • Eating in secret
  • Visits to the bathroom after eating
  • Significant fluctuations in weight
  • Social withdrawal, depression or irritability  
  • Hiding weight loss by wearing bulky clothes
  • Menstrual irregularities 
  • Thinning or dry and brittle hair  
  • Cavities or discoloration of teeth caused from vomiting

Ignoring the signs can be deadly.  Untreated eating disorders can lead to serious, debilitating health issues, and they have the highest mortality rate of any of the mental illnesses.

While medical science continues to seek answers for how to prevent and treat eating disorders, parents and others can help make a positive influence on young people.  To help the young people in your life build self-esteem, a positive body image and an understanding that appearance doesn’t matter as much as other personal qualities, consider these suggestions:

·         Accept that physical appearance is a normal concern for young people. Support your loved ones by encouraging them to feel positive about their appearance.  

·         Provide reassurance about appearance and compliment them on the great features and other physical characteristics they have – a lovely smile, the way they look in a certain color, their energy, grace or speed.

·         Express appreciation of personal qualities that have nothing to do with appearance, such as generosity, loyalty or kindness.

·         Help them critically evaluate the messages they receive from advertisements, television and elsewhere about how they need to look or dress to be considered attractive.  Help them understand that these images are often not “normal” — achieved through image retouching, unhealthy dieting or surgical procedures.

·         Set a good example by practicing healthy eating and exercise habits.  Avoid being self-critical or expressing dissatisfaction with your own appearance and diet.  Show appreciation for how your body functions every day.

For more information or to schedule a confidential assessment, contact Lane Behavioral Health Services at (225) 658-6652.

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