Anorexia: When wanting to be thin becomes unhealthy

Ironically, as the average waist size gets increasingly bigger in the Western world, the obsession with thinness grows equally in many. Some even experience an extreme and morbid fear of gaining weight – a disorder called anorexia. In order to become and stay thin, anorexic individuals mainly deprive themselves of food. They may also exercise excessively, induce vomiting, and misuse laxatives or enemas. In extreme cases, persons affected may be skin and bones and still think they are overweight. What do we need to know about this disorder?

Ironically, as the average waist size gets increasingly bigger in the Western world, the obsession with thinness grows equally in many. Some even experience an extreme and morbid fear of gaining weight – a disorder called anorexia. In order to become and stay thin, anorexic individuals mainly deprive themselves of food. They may also exercise excessively, induce vomiting, and misuse laxatives or enemas. In extreme cases, persons affected may be skin and bones and still think they are overweight. What do we need to know about this disorder?

WHO IS AFFECTED? It is difficult to determine just how many people are anorexic. We know that individuals of all ages can be affected, but the most common victims are adolescents, especially girls. It would appear, however, that the incidence of anorexia nervosa among boys has increased over the past few decades.

WHAT IS IT? Anorexia is one of the various eating disorders, which also include bulimia. These two illnesses can coexist. While anorexia nervosa mainly involves food issues, it is more than a matter of weight. Anorexia is an unhealthy approach used to handle emotional problems, extreme perfectionism or a need for control. Anorexics believe that their value is proportional to their weight. Those affected present with a multitude of physical, emotional and behavioural signs and symptoms.

On the physical front, the illness manifests through extreme weight loss that can reach as much as half of the person’s normal weight. Voluntary starvation naturally has consequences on the body. Some of the short term effects include acid-base and fluid imbalances, arrhythmia, hypotension and hypothermia. A deliberate restriction in food intake over long periods also causes a loss of muscle and bone mass, and may result in more serious and possibly irreversible complications to several organs, including the brain, kidneys and heart. In addition, it appears that many individuals with eating disorders also suffer from psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety disorder.

WHAT ARE ITS CAUSES? We do not know exactly what causes anorexia. As with many diseases, anorexia is probably caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social or cultural factors.

Some of the factors commonly listed as favouring the onset of anorexia include the lack of reference points, difficult family relations, adolescent crisis and physical changes during puberty. Some people may also be genetically predisposed to the disorder, while others my have psychological or emotional characteristics that contribute to their illness, such as low self-esteem or having an obsessive compulsive or perfectionist personality.

Our modern societies also tend to foster and reinforce the desire to be thin, which appears to influence many individuals. Eating disorders have been around for centuries, however, which suggests that culture and the media are not the only culprits involved.

WHAT ARE THE POSSIBLE TREATMENTS? Anorexia can be chronic and difficult to cure. With early treatment, however, persons affected can regain better self-esteem, re-establish better lifestyle habits and reverse some of the complications of anorexia.

Different treatment approaches may be required. If the individual’s life is in immediate danger, emergency hospitalisation may be crucial. Otherwise, the treatment for anorexia is usually carried out by an experienced multidisciplinary team that includes physicians, mental health specialists and nutritionists, among others. Individual or family psychotherapy is often beneficial.

The important thing is to know that the sooner the disorder is treated, the greater the odds are that the person affected can regain a healthy lifestyle.

HOW CAN IT BE PREVENTED? There is no sure way to prevent anorexia. Eating meals as a family may have an impact on the relationship children develop with food and may have a protective effect against the onset of eating disorders. This is the ideal time to impart healthy eating habits, to talk with your children and to relax as a family. And if your child shows signs of anxiety or depression, don’t hesitate to speak to a doctor.

Parents and other significant adults should foster a healthy body image among children of all sizes and heights. Don’t tolerate tactless jokes made about the physical appearance of fiends and family members. These messages of acceptance and respect build the healthy self-esteem and resilience that are essential in making it through the bumpy road of adolescence.

HOW TO IDENTIFY WHEN A LOVED ONE IS IN DISTRESS It isn’t always easy to tell when one of our loved ones suffers from anorexia and needs help. Being able to recognize the signs and symptoms and addressing them as soon as possible, however, can help prevent a downward spiral.

If you are worried about a loved one, here are some red flags to watch out for:
- Skipping meals and apologizing for not eating


- Only wanting to eat low-fat and low-calorie foods


- Cooking elaborate meals for loved ones but refusing to eat


- Constantly checking their weight or looking at their body in the mirror


- Wearing very loose clothing or multiple layers of clothing

Curing anorexia can be a long and difficult process. Unfortunately, many individuals who suffer from anorexia refuse treatment, at least initially. And yet, the farther along the disease gets, the harder it is to treat, as the problems get reinforced. Anorexia is similar to a real drug that gradually leaves no room for any other interests, the victim’s whole life beginning to center around this obsession. Persons affected must often cope with this illness throughout their life. Even after the symptoms have disappeared, stress or other factors can trigger new anorexic episodes.

If you are worried about someone you know, speak to the person and encourage him or her to see a doctor. The sooner the problem is addressed, the more positive the results will be.

Don’t forget that an ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure. Teach by example: take care of your health by eating a balanced diet and remaining physically active.

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