It has become an epidemic across the globe, affecting millions of men, women, and even some children. This deadly disease does not discriminate; it can affect anyone of any color, shape, size, or religion. I am talking about the Eating Disorder Epidemic that is plaguing this planet right now. Anorexia Nervosa is characterized as an intense and irrational fear of body fat and weight gain, a strong-willed determination to lose weight, and misconception of their body weight and shape. Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by self destructive “binge” and “purge” cycles. During a “binge” the person consumes large amounts of food in a rapid manner and follows by “purging” through either self induced vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercise.
The modern marketing heads have prayed upon the trusting young men and women of today, practically sending subliminal messages through their commercials and billboards defining what they believe beauty looks like. Little girls and young teenagers idolize and look up to some of their favorite women celebrities like Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashlee Simpson who publicly suffer from eating disorders, which leaves them believing eating disorder = beautiful. Society is basically telling these young impressionable men and women that it is now “socially acceptable” to starve yourself to death, or to stick your finger down your throat after you eat, or to take a box of laxatives; heck it’s even beautiful! Even though media is one of the main causes of this epidemic, a person may have many other contributing factors that can cause this disease. Every person’s contributing factors are different, no two are alike. The same applies to the recovery process from an eating disorder; it is different for everyone. There is no “cure” for this disease and once afflicted you have it for life; you can only be in remission from an eating disorder. It is one of the hardest addictions to overcome, and many relapse. When overcoming an addiction to alcohol, A.A. teaches you to abstain from alcohol, they then award you with chips based on how many days you have abstained from using. When overcoming an eating disorder obviously you cannot abstain from eating, you need to eat to survive. So they then have to learn one of the most difficult and incomprehensible skills that there is to learn for an addict; moderation. The classic addict mind set is all or nothing, black or white; gray just doesn’t exist in their world. In actuality programs like A.A. and N.A. are, in some ways, reinforcing that “all or nothing” mindset and not teaching them the principles of moderation.
Eating disorders can have many serious side effects on the body. Some can be reversed if caught soon enough, and some are irreversible. The hair on the head can become thin and eventually fall out, but there is an increase in fine baby-like hair on the body called lanugo. The skin can become dry and the hands and feet cold and blue due to poor circulation in their body. Their menstruation cycle first becomes infrequent, and then eventually stops once their body weight drops below a certain level. Many will have difficulties becoming pregnant because of their irregular periods. Their blood pressure can drop due to inadequate body fluid levels which then cause dizziness, fainting episodes, and heart palpitations. Also, their heart muscle can eventually waste away and heart failure can develop, depending on the severity and length of the eating disorder. Low blood sugar from inadequate food intake and high cholesterol levels can be found. The liver will not function well and could eventually lead to liver failure. Their body temperature can drop making the anorexic or bulimic feel constantly cold because there is so little subcutaneous fat on their bodies. Their levels of vitamins and minerals can drop to an unhealthy low causing lack in potassium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, and calcium. A drop in their potassium level can cause abnormal heart rhythms and could even cause a heart attack. Muscle weakness and wasting, particularly in the upper arm and leg muscles can occur. Bone protein loss and calcium deficiency can lead to early onset osteoporosis and increased risk of fractures. Their concentration can be poor, and they can frequently become depressed and extremely moody. As you can see there are many health complications that accompany this disease, which, if left untreated, can ultimately lead to death.
This is a grim and secretive disorder that requires the help of professionals. There are many treatment centers that are solely devoted to treating men and women with eating disorders such as The Renfrew Center or Remuda Ranch. Recognizing and treating an eating disorder early will greatly increase their chance of recovery. However, for treatment to be successful they must want to change and accept professional help and support from their loved ones. For the anorexic the first treatment step is to bring the person back to, or near, an acceptable weight. This means making sure the person has regular meals and consumes enough calories so that they will gain weight. With the bulimic, the priority is to re-establish a consistent pattern of eating, with three meals a day at regular times. Keeping a diary of their eating habits and learning about portion control is often helpful for them. Medication such as anti-anxiety or antidepressants may be used in the short term to help them through the initial stages of treatment. For many, therapy with a trusted counselor or therapist is helpful by providing them with a “safe” way to talk through that which may be triggering them or that may be coming up as they go through the treatment process. Group settings are always important. It is often comforting for them to talk to others who have been through the same experiences, and who offer understanding and acceptance without blame, guilt, or judgment.
This psychiatric disorder can be one of the most difficult things in these people’s lives to overcome, and unfortunately about 50% of patients treated in a hospital showed signs of relapse. However, recovery is possible, with commitment, patience, and support, it can be done.