..The Intuitive Times
Healing the Heart


Recognizing Eating Disorders

by Thomas Corcoran, M.Ed, CCC

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In Canada, there are as many as 200,000 people suffering from an eating disorder. It is believed that between 1 - 2% of Canadians suffer from Anorexia Nervosa and at least 2% more suffer from Bulimia. Of this number, 90% are female. It is also believed that as many as 5% of Canadian women between 14 and 24 are suffering with some level of eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by drastic weight loss to the point of attaining a skeleton-like appearance. This is usually attained by severe dieting and large amounts of exercise. As an individual with anorexia nervosa loses weight, he or she wants to lose more. It may start as a desire to lose five or ten pounds but it does not stop there. For people suffering with this disease, the weight loss is never enough. At extremely low body weight, this person will still find fat that they want to eliminate from their body.

Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by the uncontrollable eating of a large quantity of food that is followed by attempts to purge the food from the system. Purging is usually done by self-induced vomiting but also may involve fasting, the abuse of laxatives and/or excessive exercise. Bulimia is not as easily detected as Anorexia Nervosa. Unlike the anorexic, the weight loss of the bulimic is not usually as drastic. Therefore, the bulimic is not as noticeable and the condition can be present for a longer period of time leading to severe consequences. Health problems due to the self-induced vomiting include tears to the esophagus, erosion of teeth enamel, chronic sore throat, peptic ulcers, pancreatitis and ruptures in the gastric system.

Health risks associated with Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia are numerous and can be life threatening. Complications can cause heart attacks, kidney and liver damage, osteoporosis and infertility. It is common for those with an eating disorder to suffer fatigue, hair loss, stomach pain, skin problems, cold hands and feet, constipation, diarrhea, electrolyte imbalance, anemia, loss of menstruation, dizziness, headaches, depression and insomnia.

Causes The cause of an eating disorder is a complex issue that is difficult to explain. One extremely important factor is society's pre-occupation with thinness. A quick glance at any magazine will show examples of tall slender women and men that have come to embody the "ideal" body type. There is no cautionary note accompanying these pictures that explain the tricks of photography, the editors cropping of legs and hips or the dangerous dieting that may have gone into the creation of these pictures.

Girls and young women seem to be particularly at risk of becoming victims of an eating disorder. The biological changes a young girl experiences when approaching puberty can be confusing and stressful. The teenager who is faced with issues of dating and sex is often under more pressure than she should be. Add pressure to perform well, at school, on the playing field and around home and there is more than enough stress to make her vulnerable. Often these young girls feel ineffective and powerless to control most of the things that are happening around them. Dieting is a way to gain some self-control and feel effective. If she loses weight, she is successful and in control. The most common element found among eating disordered individuals is low self-esteem.

Signs and Symptoms How can you tell if someone you care about is suffering from an eating disorder? This may not always be easy. People afflicted with an eating disorder become masterful hiders. Baggy clothes, white lies about having eaten already or that they are not feeling well are common. But if someone you know becomes overly concerned with their weight or shape, feeling fat when their weight is normal, starts restricting food choices to diet foods, you may have something to worry about. When someone you know loses a large amount of weight or their weight seems to fluctuate often there could be an eating disorder. If someone disappears to the bathroom shortly after most meals, she may be purging. If you find evidence of laxative use beyond the occasional, there may be a problem. A common issue for eating disordered women is irregular or non-existent menstruation, so this condition may be an indicator. It must be pointed out that these things could be symptomatic of other things as well as an eating disorder. But if more than a couple of these symptoms are present, it should be cause for concern.

What to do if you suspect someone you know has an eating disorder. The first thing that a concerned parent or friend should do is consult a professional for advice. That advice may include such things as individual therapy, group therapy, support group, medical treatment, nutritional counseling, medication and in extreme cases, hospitalization. When you finally approach the person, do so with compassion and understanding. Be prepared for denial. You should avoid making the topic weight loss or appearance, rather focus on your concerns for the person's health.

For further information contact:
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre, 200 Elizabeth Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 2C4,
Phone: 416-340-4156.

Tom Corcoran is a Canadian Certified Counsellor who practices in Charlottetown,PEI


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