Starving to Perfection

Starving to Perfection

Eating disorders are developing the reputation as having the highest mortality rate of any illness, as well as being one of the most under-diagnosed psychological conditions today.  And far too often, it is too late when someone takes notice.  The signs differ from one person to the next making eating disorders difficult to spot to the untrained eye.  Close attention is needed in order to recognize possible warning signs such as reluctance to eat with the family or in a group, repeated trips to the bathroom after meals, complaints of never being hungry, distorted views of their body, mood swings, and having less energy and interest in previously enjoyed activities – all should be taken very seriously.

“Eating disorders occur in secret,” says Teresa Sullivan, a psychotherapist in practice for 23 years who specializes in treating eating disorders.  “People are usually in denial that they have a problem so it can go on for years before someone notices.”

Society puts a tremendous amount of pressure on us to be thin so it’s really not all that surprising to learn that eating disorders typically occur in early adolescence with poor self-esteem and body image as the most common contributors.  Anorexia is one of the most common eating disorders.  It is the pursuit of thinness, with anorexics going to extremes to maintain an unsafe body weight often in secret to conceal their behaviour from others.  They obsess over counting calories and fat, measure food portions, read food labels and keep food journals.  Fixated on weight, body shape and size of clothing, they only see a ‘fat’ person when they look in the mirror.

Fueled by the media, they deviate from normal, healthy attitudes about body image to self-starvation including unhealthy diets, purging, fasting and excessive exercise.  What is not immediately apparent is the denial of the dangers of anorexia.  As self-starvation persists, more body fat is lost and complications become evident.  Doctors can see the amount of weight-loss, digestive problems, Amenorrhoea; the absence of menstruation, and damage to the esophagus and larynx from acid reflux.  Dentists see salivary gland  enlargement (chipmunk like features) which are indicators of bingeing and purging, as well as tooth decay.  Other physical changes include weakening and swelling of the muscles and joints, periodic fractures, thinning and brittle hair, dry and flaky skin, ease of which the body bruises, a jaundice-like skin tone, brittle finger nails, low blood pressure, palpitations of the heart and possibly kidney failure.

“It’s all about control,” says Jennifer, 24, from Toronto who is battling an eating disorder.  “Whether you are anorexic or bulimic, you are ultimately seeking control over an otherwise chaotic life and mind.  An eating disorder completely takes you over.  You become it and it becomes you.  All that you can control is what and how much food you put in your body.  It’s when you lose control and your body shuts down that things get really scary,” she says.

Bulimia on the other hand, generally occurs with anorexia but can exist independently and is characterized by binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting, fasting, the use of laxatives and over-exercising.  Bulimics eat a large portion of food; more than most people under similar circumstances within a fixed period of time and feel a loss of control over how much and what they eat.  The need to remove food from the body before it can be digested to prevent weight gain is overpowering.  More difficult to detect than anorexia because sufferers tend to look ‘healthy’ and have fewer physical complications.  It too can be equally destructive to the body.

“On the surface the body appears okay – thin usually, sometimes fit looking, but internal damage is occurring to the heart, kidneys, liver, intestines and oesophagus.  They develop compulsive tendencies and can often become depressed,” says Sullivan.

Recognizing the warning signs is crucial in treating an eating disorder.  The longer it goes unnoticed, the longer treatment will ultimately take.  There are a number of treatment options out there for you to explore.  However, treatment can take months or even years depending on the severity of the condition and the length of time it went untreated.  In severe cases, hospitalization is required to stabilize the vital organs, but once the body regains some of its physical health, the underlying psychological causes for the disorder can be explored.

“It’s not like I just woke up one day and knew I had an eating disorder,” said Jennifer.  I guess I was always conscious of my weight, even as a young child but it only go to the point of being noticeable to others when I was in high school.  I would go weeks without consuming anything but water while exercising up to six hours a day.  I lost a considerable amount of weight.  That’s when my parents stepped in and I started counselling.”

A positive body image starts with a healthy attitude.  If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, contact your family physician, a crisis intervention team, the school counselling office or any other medical professional.