The Women's Health Resource Center
Eating disorders are harmful behaviors characterized by abnormalities in eating patterns. Anorexia is a relentless pursuit of thinness through starvation, often leading to life-threatening weight loss. Bulimia nervosa is a cycle of binging on excessive amounts of food and purging by using laxatives, diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or self-induced vomiting. Binge overeating without purging often leads to obesity and is also considered an eating disorder.
In the United States, as many as one out of eight women has reported a past or current eating disorder. Women who have eating disorders are secretive about their behavior and can appear healthy and of normal weight; however, due their shame and guilt, they have extreme difficulty disclosing their problem to health care providers, family or friends.
Medical complications from eating disorders can include alteration in almost all systems of the body and in extreme cases result in death. Because everyone today seems concerned about weight, it can be difficult to tell what is normal behavior and what are warning signs of eating disorders. No one person will show all of the characteristics, but people with eating disorders will manifest several. The sooner an eating disorder is treated, the easier it will be for the person to recover. If warning signs and symptoms are allowed to persist until they become entrenched behaviors, the person may struggle for years.
Eating disorders have no single cause; they may be biological, psychosocial, developmental or feminist. Much attention has been focused on the hypothesis that eating disorders are caused by societal pressures to be thin. Often an eating disorder may manifest during early adolescence or during a life transition such as high school graduation, starting college, or moving away from the family home.
Warning Signs and Characteristics of Eating Disorders
The person skips meals, takes only tiny portions, will not eat in front of other people, always has an excuse not to eat.
Becomes "disgusted" with former favorite foods like red meat and desserts. Will eat only a few "safe" foods. Chooses primarily low-fat items with low levels of other nutrients, foods such as lettuce, tomatoes and sprouts.
Or, in contrast, the person gorges, usually in secret. May also buy special binge food. May leave clues that suggest discovery is desired, such as empty boxes, cans, and food packages.
Sometimes the person uses laxatives, diet pills, water pills, or "natural" products from health food stores to promote weight loss.
Appearance and body image behaviors
The person loses, or tries to lose, weight and has frantic fears of weight gain and obesity. Obsesses about clothing size. Complains that she is fat.
Spends lots of time inspecting themselves in the mirror and usually finds something to criticize. Detests all or specific parts of the body, especially breasts, belly, thighs, and buttocks. Insists she cannot feel good about self unless she is thin, and she is never thin enough.
The person exercises excessively and compulsively.
May develop strange eating patterns, supposedly to enhance athletic performance. May consume sports drinks and supplements, but total calories are less than what an active lifestyle requires.
In spite of average or above-average intelligence, the person thinks in magical and simplistic ways, for example, "If I am thinner, I will feel better about myself."
Becomes irrational, argues with people who try to help, and then withdraws, sulks, or throws a tantrum.
Strives to be the best, the smallest, the thinnest.
Has trouble concentrating. Obsesses about food and weight and holds to rigid, perfectionist standards for self and others.
Has trouble talking about feelings, especially anger.
Becomes moody, irritable, cross, snappish, and touchy. Withdraws into self and feelings, becoming socially isolated.
Tries to please everyone and withdraws when this is not possible.
Person tries to control what and where the family eats.
Relationships tend to be either superficial or dependent. Person craves true intimacy but at the same time is terrified of it. As in all other areas of life, anorexics tend to be rigidly controlling while a bulimic has problems with lack of impulse control that can lead to rash decisions about sex, money, stealing, commitments, careers, and all forms of social risk taking.
For more information contact the Women's Health Resource Center at (415) 600-0500, the Community Health Resource Center at (415) 923-3155 or the Health and Healing Center at (415) 600-3660.
What you can do…
- Seek medical treatment.
- If you have been without a menstrual period for longer than one year, talk to your health care provider.
- Disclose your eating disorder behavior to a trusted health care provider, family member or friend.
- Seek multidisciplinary treatment to help your recovery which should include your primary care provider, a mental health care professional and a nutritionist.
- Consider individual, family or group counseling.
- Join a support group.