National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

“National Eating Disorders Awareness Week” is February 20th- February 26th, 2011. It is estimated that almost 5% of the US population will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime. Eating disorders of all kinds are more prevalent in women, but men can suffer from eating disorders too. 5.6% of people with anorexia nervosa will die from their eating disorder every decade.

There are three official categories of eating disorder: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and “eating disorders not otherwise specified”. The latter category contains disorders such as binge eating disorder, which has been acknowledged as an eating disorder more recently. Eating disorders most frequently develop during adolescence, but in some cases they can develop earlier or later in life.

Anorexia nervosa, often simply called anorexia, is, most simply, when the person with the eating disorder takes steps to remain underweight for fear of gaining weight. This can mean refusing to eat, exercising obsessively, vomiting, or using laxatives and diuretics excessively. People with anorexia have a distorted body image, tending to overestimate their weight and seeing themselves as overweight even when they are starving themselves. People with anorexia become obsessed with food and weight, constantly monitoring their weight and restricting the calories they consume. Anorexia can be a lifetime struggle or a single episode.

The clinical symptoms of anorexia are identical to the effects of starvation and malnutrition, but there are added psychological factors that make treatment more difficult than just prescribing a high-calorie, nutritious diet, including anxiety, substance abuse, depression, and obsessive behavior. Individuals with anorexia are likely to develop cardiovascular problems and even die of cardiac arrest due to electrolyte imbalances. Other physical problems involved are fluid imbalance, osteoporosis, anemia, muscle weakness, brittle hair and nails, dry skin, low blood pressure, slow pulse, always feeling cold due a decreased body temperature, lethargy, constipation, and the growth of fine hair all over the body. This hair is called “lanugo”, and is the same type of hair that covers a fetus before about 33 weeks.

Bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, is an eating disorder characterized by “bingeing and purging”, or eating large quantities of food and then trying to compensate for the excessive intake. This can involve vomiting, use of diuretics and laxatives, exercising obsessively, or fasting. People with bulimia can fall within a normal weight range, but people with anorexia must be underweight by definition. Individuals with bulimia who purge can have a constantly sore throat, damaged teeth and mouth, acid reflux disease, gastrointestinal problems, fluid imbalance, and possible kidney problems from using diuretics. They can also have psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, and substance abuse.

Binge eating disorder involves frequent bingeing on food without purging afterwards. Individuals with binge eating disorder consume more calories than normal and are overweight or obese. They feel like they can’t control their compulsive eating.

The cause of eating disorders is multifaceted. Biological and environmental factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder. In our society, many normal people, especially women, are dissatisfied with their appearance. People with anxiety, depression, and obsessive behavior may be more prone to developing an eating disorder in this environment, especially during adolescence, which is a difficult time in many people’s lives.

Treatment for eating disorders has to be personalized for each patient. The goals for treating an eating disorder include establishing healthy eating habits, treating psychological conditions, and preventing relapse. This may involve anything from hospitalization in an eating disorder clinic to outpatient psychotherapy or group therapy. Some cases are treated and do not recur, but some people struggle with eating disorders and the medical problems they cause for their entire lives.


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