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Eating Disorders: Some Things You Should Know

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE ABOUT EATING DISORDERS?

February 21-27 is National Eating Disorder Awareness week, and it’s a good time to take stock of how you and the ones around you are doing. Can you identify some of the symptoms of an eating disorder? Have you ever considered if you might have an eating disorder? Eating disorders can affect people from different age groups, walks of life, and even men and boys.

We at Valley Women’s Clinic know that the struggle with body image is real. Many people deal with insecurities about their body, which can sometimes lead to varying degrees of eating disorders. One of our VWC staff members, Heather, shares the story of her own struggle with an eating disorder:

“I had struggled with insecurities about my body for many years, but when I was 14 years old I started to take matters into my own hands. I started to skip meals and when that didn’t work, I cut all my meals in half. By the time I was 15 I had lost even more than my initial goal weight (which was about 40 pounds less than was healthy for my height and body type). I decided I was going to keep going because I didn’t get the satisfaction I was hoping I would when I reached that goal weight.

One day my mother gently shared her concerns that I might be damaging my body. I didn’t want to take her concerns seriously, but shortly after, I found myself reading about anorexia for the first time. I saw myself in so many of the symptoms, but the one that struck me the most was ‘lack of menstruation.’ I hadn’t told anyone, but I had not had a period in almost a year! Just seeing that symptom listed was enough for me to finally begin to recognize that I had a problem.

It did take time for me to work through the unhealthy thinking patterns, but now I have a much healthier body image; I no longer find my identity in a number on a scale, and I want people to know that there is hope for those struggling with eating disorders.”

Check out some information below on two of the most common eating disorders, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, as well as the some of the symptoms they can cause. We hope this information will help you be more aware of these disorders and when it might be time to get help for yourself or someone in your life who may be struggling with one of them.

WHAT IS AN EATING DISORDER?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health:
“An eating disorder is an illness that causes serious disturbances to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating. A person with an eating disorder may have started out just eating smaller or larger amounts of food, but at some point, the urge to eat less or more spiraled out of control. Severe distress or concern about body weight or shape may also signal an eating disorder.”

Anorexia is typically characterized by restricting food intake. This can include skipping meals or eating only very small quantities of food. Bulimia, on the other hand, is typically characterized by frequent episodes of binge eating followed by some method or combination of methods to purge for this behavior, such as forced vomiting, over-exercise, use of laxatives, etc.

WHAT ARE SOME SYMPTOMS OF EATING DISORDERS?

The Mayo Clinic lists these symptoms:

  • Skipping meals or making excuses for not eating
  • Excessive focus on healthy eating
  • Making own meals rather than eating what the family eats
  • Persistent worry or complaining about being fat and talk of losing weight
  • Excessive exercise
  • Leaving during meals to use the toilet
  • Expressing depression, disgust, shame or guilt about eating habits
  • Eating in secret

The National Institute of Mental Health lists these additional symptoms specific to anorexia or bulimia.

Anorexia Specific:

  • Extreme thinness (emaciation)
  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight; intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight
  • Extremely restricted eating
  • Lack of menstruation among girls and women

Bulimia Specific:

  • Usually maintain what is considered a healthy or normal weight, while some are slightly overweight
  • Fear gaining weight, want desperately to lose weight, and are intensely unhappy with their body size and shape
  • Bulimic behavior is done secretly because it is often accompanied by feelings of disgust or shame
  • Recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes
  • Binge-eating is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors

Over time, this can lead to:

Anorexia Specific:

  • Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
  • Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
  • Low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • Brain damage, multi-organ failure
  • Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
  • Infertility

Bulimia Specific:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Worn tooth enamel, increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid
  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or too high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium and other minerals) which can lead to heart attack

WHEN SHOULD I GET HELP FOR MYSELF OR A FRIEND?

Eating disorders can be very serious and even life threatening. If you notice some of these symptoms in yourself or someone else, it’s important that you get help. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, a good starting place is to open up to someone you trust about what you have been going through.

If you are concerned about someone in your life, find an appropriate time to gently share your concerns with them in a non-threatening way. Radford University also provides several resources and tips for helping a friend or family member with an eating disorder.

WHAT RESOURCES ARE AVAILABLE FOR GETTING HELP FOR AN EATING DISORDER?

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) provides a free and confidential screening for eating disorders. This quiz is designed to help you determine if it’s time to seek professional help.

NEDA also provides an extensive list of resources on their website.

If you’re a student needing help for yourself or a friend, both VT and RU offer help through their student counseling services for those struggling with eating disorders:

Valley Women’s Clinic can provide referrals for local counselors and support. You can contact our Blacksburg or Radford office for more information.

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