Overall Picture of Eating Disorders

A sad girl ballet dancer sitting alone.

One of the most important things to remember is that eating disorders are not always about food or weight. They are more often about the pain, anxiety, low self-esteem, or a perceived lack of control in their life. Their weight is one area in their life where they believe they can have control. Unfortunately those with eating disorders create an unrealistic body-image, seeing them self as fat when they are not.

General Picture of Anorexia Nervosa

anorexia nervosa is the maintenance of a body weight at least 15% below normal caused by the self-induced avoidance of “fatty” foods and one of the following: 1

  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Self-induced purging
  • Excessive exercise
  • Use of appetite suppressants, diuretics, enemas alone or in combination

Someone who is Anorexic sees himself or herself as fat despite their dangerously low body weight. This body-image distortion persists causing the person to impose ever-stricter dietary limits. The results of this on the health can vary but often include:

  • Heart problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems (including ulcers, gastritis, and constipation)
  • The absence of menstruation in women
  • A loss of sexual interest and desire in men
  • women taking hormones or birth control may have persistent vaginal bleeding
  • Increased levels of Growth Hormone
  • Raised Cortisol levels
  • Changes in the peripheral metabolism of the Thyroid Hormone
  • Abnormalities of Insulin secretion
  • Anemia

If Anorexia strikes before puberty, it can delayed or even stops the growth process itself. In girls, the breasts do not develop and there is a lack of menstruation. In boys, the genitals may remain juvenile. With recovery, puberty is usually completed normally, but the initial menstruation is often delayed. 1

Someone suffering from Anorexia may be described as a “walking skeleton” due to the pallor and frailty caused by their illness. Many other visible signs of the body’s distress often accompany this illness including: 2

  • Bruising
  • Discoloration of the teeth
  • Dry skin
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Water retention – most often in the ankles and feet
  • Hyperactivity
  • The growth of fine hair on the body as the body tries to keep itself warm without the normal stores of fat (called Lanugo)
  • Loss of hair on the head
  • Low body temperature
  • Yellow or Jaundiced skin
  • Lack of energy
  • Fainting

The self-starvation will eventually lead to a real loss of appetite as the individual becomes malnourished. This is often when help is finally forced on the individual through hospitalization.

As the illness progresses, the person runs the risk of heart, kidney, or multiple organ failure. It is estimated that between 5 and 20% of all Anorexics die from complications related to their illness. 2

General Picture of Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is a pattern of Binge-Eating and Purging. The Bulimic person feels they have no control over their appetite and will become angry or guilt after they binge, this anger or guilt causes the purging that completes the circle. Nearly 90% of Bulimics will induce vomiting as a result to “compensate” for their binging. 3

The results of Bulimia on a person’s health can vary, but can include: 4, 5

  • Heart problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems (including ulcers, gastritis, and constipation)
  • The absence of menstruation in women
  • A loss of sexual interest and desire in men
  • Potassium deficiency or other electrolyte imbalances
  • Tears in the lining of the esophagus or stomach

While the person may not have the skeletal appearance of an Anorexic, many physical symptoms are present including: 5

  • Frequent weight fluctuations
  • Discoloration of the teeth
  • Dry skin
  • Swollen salivary glands giving the face a rounder appearance
  • Lack of energy
  • Fainting

While the danger may be slightly lower than that of Anorexia, Bulimia can still be life threatening. A deficiency of Potassium or other essential minerals can cause severe damage to the Heart or Kidneys. There are also added dangers of choking or rupturing the esophagus or stomach as a result of binging.

General Picture of Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating is the consumption of a large amount of food in a limited time period – usually no more than two hours. A Binge may not be limited to a single sitting, and typically includes sweet, high caloric foods and is characterized more by the amount of food consumed than a craving for a specific nutrient such as carbohydrates. 6

The health dangers of Bulimia can vary from person to person, but often include:

  • Obesity
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Heart Attacks

The Binge Eater does not regularly purge in the way that someone with Bulimia does, though they may do so once in a while. The Binge Eater may also go through periods of severe dieting that almost approach the level of starvation.

The Pro Anorexia / Pro Bulimia Movement

While it is inconceivable to most of the world that anyone would be for something as damaging and life threatening as Anorexia or Bulimia, these people do exist. There are entire websites dedicated to the subject. This not only makes it difficult for those with eating disorders to find help, it has the potential to drive others towards eating disorders.

These websites attempt to treat these illnesses as lifestyles, promoting self-starvation and purging in order to reach their concept of a physical ideal. What they consider ideal, the medical community considers life threatening. These individuals not only carefully avoid discussing the dangers of the disorders, but they treat the disorders as if they are about weight and food.

Anorexia and Bulimia are not about weight and food; they are about a person’s inability to cope with the stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, and lack of control they feel.7

For more on the Pro-Anorexia movement, visit the following links:

Additional Websites

For more in depth information about these disorders, please check the websites below.

Resources

  1. Mental health Matters: Anorexia Nervosa Information
  2. Gürze Books: Anorexia Nervosa: A Guide to Recovery
  3. Mental health Matters: Bulimia Nervosa Information
  4. Go Ask Alice: Dangers of Bulimia
  5. Eating Disorders Association: What Is Bulimia Nervosa?
  6. Mental health Matters: Binge Eating Disorder Information
  7. Something Fishy
Sean is the Editor of Mental Health Matters. His life changed in 1996 during a business trip to Southern California. After driving through the neighborhood where he grew up, he started recalling a series of traumatic events that eventually took over. After a four-month battle on his own to try and keep the memory buried, he finally sought help. During a series of voluntary stays in a local hospital, he was diagnosed with Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He has been active in individual therapy and group therapy during his recovering, and he continues to cope with the recalled memory of childhood sexual abuse. Sean continues to recover daily, and is proud to be a part of a site that helps others.

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