Eating Disorder as a Mental Issue: Kinds and Reasons

Introduction

Eating disorder has the highest mortality rate of all the mental disorders. It is found that up to 20% of those with eating disorders yield to their sickness. (Marano, 2004).

The National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders declared that the problem is rapidly sweeping across America. Incidence of eating disorders has reportedly doubled since the 1960s. People of all ages, gender, social status, and ethnicities may be affected by this disorder. It is manifested by 7 million American females and one million males. (“Anorexia nervosa – The most deadly mental illness,” 2005)

According to Swaminathan (n.d.), eating disorders are real medical illnesses that are acquired by developing abnormal patterns of eating. This illness should receive medical attention and action on its early stages before it gains control of the victim’s life.

About 2-3% percent of adolescents have bulimia, and 0.5-1% percent of adolescents have anorexia at some point in their life. More than 90% of those with eating disorders are young women in their teens, and most develop the disorder during puberty. American colleges report that all three disorders are prevalent on campus, afflicting up to 4 out of 10 students at some point during the student’s stay. (Marano, 2004)

Noticeably, females are much more prone to eating disorders than men. This may be due to society’s vision of a “picture perfect” figure. Consequently, women shrink themselves to achieve thinness, while men tend to bulk up and grow muscles.

Defining Eating Disorder

An eating disorder is a medical illness characterized by an obscure compulsion to eat, or not eat, such that normal physical function and mental behavior are interrupted. The eating may be excessive or too limited. It may also include normal eating punctuated with episodes of purging, cycles of binging and purging, or ingestion of non-foods. (2007) These patterns can be caused by anxiety or anguish about body shape and weight, which may harm the normal body composition and function.

Eating disorders are of three types. When one sees a skinny person, that person is usually judges to be anorexic. This is because anorexia nervosa causes people to be skeleton-thin due to extreme dieting and exercising. They eat very little or starve themselves in order to be thin because no matter how thin they appear, they will always look at themselves to be overweight. The second most common eating disorder is Bulimia nervosa, which is eating more than the normal amount of food in a short period, followed by purging to get rid of the ingested food. Both anorexics and bulimics are extremely conscious about their weight. On the other hand, binge-eating disorder is characterized by repeated occurrence of over-eating. This will lead them to feel ashamed and disgusted because of their obesity, and therefore binge again. (Swaminathan, n.d.)

Anorexia Nervosa

”Anorexia nervosa was first recognized by English physician Richard Morton in 1649”. (Chang, 1998).

People suffering from anorexia have a neurotic fear of fat, so they do not eat enough food, or sometimes, they eat noting at all. Eating for them is an obsession. As a result, they lose weight drastically. But amidst their perilously thin figure, they see themselves as overweight. They weigh 15% below the normal body weight for their age and height. (2007).

Anorexia often starts among adolescents aged 13 to 20. “About 90% of anorexics are female”. Fashion models, ballerinas and gymnasts are the most at risk of this disorder due to their requirement to be slim. Male anorexics are also slowly increasing in number, particularly among dancers and athletes. (Chang, 1998).

Signs of developing anorexia include obsessing about the portions of their food intake and calorie count, development of unusual eating habits, repeated checking of body weight, intense and compulsive exercising, and purging by inducing vomiting or taking laxatives, enemas and diuretics. For girls, first menstrual period is delayed. (Aaronson, 2005)

Anorexia is a slow suicide. It kills by making its victims weak due to malnutrition, which then leads to serious complications. “As the body fights starvation, it adjusts by slowing down breathing and pulse rates, and lowering blood-pressure rates. Anorexics’ skin often becomes dry and yellowish. Their bones become brittle from lack of nutrients. With very little body fat, anorexics are extremely sensitive to cold. Lack of food intake causes potassium deficiency leading to heart problems, and later, cardiac arrest.” (Chang, 1998) Anorexia also causes electrolyte imbalance and suicide among its victims.

The effects of anorexia nervosa vary between different individuals exhibiting different disorder patterns. Some may instantly recognize the signs of being ill which enables them to stop the abnormal behavior at once. Some may experience irregular weight gain and weight loss. Then again, there are others who experience constant deterioration over many years due to the illness, and this makes them almost skeletal and frail. It is estimated that 0.56% of all anorexics die every year. This disorder brings 12 times more deaths than any other causes of deaths among females aged 15 to 24. (Sullivan, 1995).

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa was first recognized as a disease in 1979. (Chang, 1998) Bulimia is characterized by eating large quantity of food in a sitting, and then getting rid of the food by vomiting, which is more often than not, done secretly. Bulimics also have a faint view of their body shape and weight. But unlike anorexics, they can maintain a normal body weight. Over-exercising and abuse of laxatives or diet pills are also observed among bulimics. (Than, 2005).

Once the disease has begun, it can cause physical, mental and emotional destruction. Bulimics often suffer from stomach or esophagus rupture due to excessive vomiting. They are also usually dehydrated. Like anorexia, bulimia can cause and electrolyte imbalances, leading to heart failure. (Chang, 1998).

Most bulimics are aware of the problem and are apprehensive about its effects on their bodies. They are also scared and troubled by their inability to control their food intake. (Than, 2005) The behaviors of binging and then purging performed in secrecy are accompanied by feelings of humiliation followed by relief.

”About 4 out of 100 females get bulimia nervosa at some point in their lifetime”. (Chang, 1998) It usually starts during the stage of puberty. According to child psychiatrists, 13% of high school girls purge. (Marano, 2004).

Binge-Eating Disorder

Binge eating is often referred to as Compulsive Overeating. Binge-eaters eat rapidly until uncomfortably full. Binges are often done secretly due to shame and disgust for the amount of food they are eating. Purging or any form of ridding the food is not involved after the binge so bingers are usually obese. When binging is done to alleviate stress, depression, sorrow, anger, desperation, or any other negative emotions, this is called emotional eating. (Wikipedia.org, 2007) For some, binge eating is also a way to achieve even a little bit of satisfaction in their life.

Causes of Eating Disorders

There are a hundred reasons for getting eating disorders but generally, these are brought about by emotional, psychological, interpersonal, behavioral, and social factors. (National Eating Disorders Association. n.d.).

Different people can develop different types of eating disorders for different reasons but therapists reveal that the most common reason for acquiring eating disorders is the lack of control on what is going on with themselves or their surroundings. (Johnson, n.d.) As a solution to their problem, they build up a fixation to gain control primarily with the way they eat.

As stated earlier, eating disorders are more rampant among teenagers. This is because teenagers are undergoing major life transitions. Entering high school, going away to college, developing relationships, and being exposed to new surroundings may be too unpredictable, too unfamiliar, or too overwhelming for some, which makes them feel out of control. (Johnson, n.d.).

The family also contributes significantly to the development of poor eating habits. The families of anorexic patients are found to have extremely controlling parents. They turn to changing their eating habits in order to differentiate themselves from their dictator and prove that they can be in control. In contrast, detachment among family members is one conspicuous reason for bulimia. Bulimics turns to this as a solution by catching the attention of their family members, or by distracting themselves from the emptiness that they feel due to the lack of bonding relationship. (Johnson, n.d.).

The desire to have the perfect body reflects that people with eating disorders are usually perfectionists. Perfectionists have very high achievement expectations, and any form of failure, whether it be at school, at work, or in a relationship, may cause significant drop in their self-esteem. For anorexics and bulimics, achieving the perfect body can be the first step to redeeming themselves. Then again, emotional eating done by bingers can serve as an escape from feeling of worthlessness. (Johnson, n.d.)

Findings show a considerable relation between eating disorders and physical or sexual abuse. The disorder develops as a mechanism to cope up with the traumatic experience. This may unconsciously serve as punishment for their worthlessness. (Wikipedia.org, 2007) Also, striving to be what is ideal may be an attempt to achieve social acceptance.

”Eating disorders often appear as a product of other psychiatric illness such as depression, addiction, and anxiety disorders”. (Swaminathan, n.d.) Approximately half of eating disorder patients reported having suffered with significant depression or anxiety and about one third proved to have symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder even before they had eating disorder. (Johnson, n.d.).

Meanwhile, eating disorder may also be a psychological reaction to a biological problem which may not have ay relation with what is happening in the individual’s surroundings. There are current researches that prove that eating disorders may be genetic and that it runs in the family. (National Eating Disorders Association. n.d.).

Society and culture play a major role on the increasing number of individuals with eating disorder. The society has placed a narrow definition of beauty for men and women. Nowadays, thinness is glorified and individuals are more pressured than ever to obtain the “perfect body”. (National Eating Disorders Association, n.d.) Failure to achieve the created standard of beauty causes low self-esteem. Upsetting experiences like being teased about personal appearance, or being rejected, only heightens the tendency of an individual to obsess about their body thinking that being thin will make them more likable. (Johnson, n.d.).

Eating Disorders and Culture

Eating disorders are greatly associated with culture. Pop culture, religion, and evolution provide different reasons for acquiring and developing this illness. (Miller and Pumariega, n.d.)

America is like the ‘eating disorder capital’ of the world. Women in North America are brought up to believe that thinness is the way to achieving happiness and success. (Thompson, 2007) Eating disorders are rampant among Caucasians, regardless of their socio-economic status. Negative concept of body image is also rapidly spreading dissatisfaction among African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans in the country. Obesity is also one of the major health problems of the nation.

Incidence of eating disorders has been considerably fewer outside the United States. According to Miller and Pumariega (n.d.), the ideals of beauty vary across different cultures. For instance, plumpness is regarded to be more attractive and desirable in several non-Western societies due to its association with wealth, fertility, and success (as cited by Nassar, 1988). Eating disorders occur less in these types of society. Furthermore, they found that in some countries like Hong Kong and India, eating disorders are not mainly caused by an obsession to be thin, but instead, religious beliefs push them to fast to the point of sickness. (as cited in Castillo, 1997).

Influence of Society and Mass Media

Like culture, the society greatly caters to the rising numbers of eating disorder cases. This is because the society puts up this ideal image of what you or your body should look like, causing pressure to individuals to chase these unachievable norms. Trying to be thin is an attempt to fit in and be accepted.

To show how conscious people are becoming of their body image, Essence magazine conducted a survey in January 1994 and found that 71.5% of the respondents were preoccupied with the desire to be thinner and are terrified of being overweight. Almost half admitted feeling guilty after eating, and 39% stated that food concerns practically control their lives. (National Eating Disorders Association, n.d.) These results clearly show that people are more and more concerned with their physical appearance due to the pressures of society.

Now, with television shows, magazines, and advertisements showcasing and worshiping women with the “perfect body type”, the society easily points the finger on mass media as the main cause of eating disorders. Kristen Harrison, assistant professor of communication studies, argued that “the overall emphasis on feminine thinness exemplified by multiple media depictions of slender models and actresses should be considered for its possible influence on disordered eating.” (De Groat, 1997) Harrison found that a perceived resemblance to a female celebrity, and a fondness for and a desire to be like the famous woman is related to disordered eating.

Today, the images of withered models appear on the front cover of all fashion magazines, billboards, and television ads. These models are considered to posses the “ideal figure”. “Thousands of teenage girls are starving themselves trying to look like what they see from the fashion industry”. (Thompson, 2007) On the contrary, the weight of an average model is 23% less than the average woman, making this “ideal figure” virtually unattainable. In television, we see that actresses are also beginning to shrink themselves. This proves that “thin is definitely in” (Thompson, 2007).

Another study was conducted by Steven Thomsen, an associate communications professor at Brigham Young University, on the frequency of eating disorders among fitness magazine readers showed that women who read health and fitness magazines at least once a month were significantly more likely to have practiced unhealthy weight control methods than were moderate or infrequent readers. Nearly 80% of frequent readers had induced vomiting, 73% had taken diet pills, and 60% had used laxatives. (Gorrell, 2001) Results also follow with women who read fashion and beauty magazines.

The beauty and diet industries make more than $45 billion every year. (National Eating Disorder Information Center, n.d.) This includes cosmetic products, food supplements, slimming products, magazines, books, videos, and others, which encourage the readers not to like their bodies or themselves. They convince the readers that being thin will make them more confident, desirable, successful, healthy, and happy. They make readers dissatisfied and unhappy with themselves when their bodies do not look like the thin ideal.

But the fashion and diet industries are not entirely to blame for the growing number of eating disorders. We are the ones keeping them in business, spending our money thinking that we can attain what they tell us to be the “ideal” body image.

Conclusion

Eating disorder is the deadliest among all mental illness. Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating are increasingly affecting most of our youths. Malnourishment caused by anorexia and bulimia may cause serious harm to their victims.There are plenty of reasons why people get eating disorders. Control issues, perfection issues, and addiction are the general causes of this psychological illness.Emotional stresses like depression, family problems, or break-ups can cause a disorder in a person’s eating habits. Major transformations like puberty, college, or environmental changes are also major contributors to the development of eating disorders. Eating disorders also may become a means of coping from traumatic incidences, from simple rejection to sexual abuse. Drug or alcohol abuse is also a risk factor.

In addition, media images have been identified to be a major cause of eating disorders by posting a perfect image to the society. This may promote low self-esteem and negative body image, which then leads to obsessing about food and weight. Though the media does not directly cause eating disorders, they clearly send out the message that one should be thin. When one believes that there is a real link between being thin, over-controlled about food and weight and being happy and successful, then they are more likely to develop eating disorders. (National Eating Disorder Information Center, n.d.)

Eating disorders are serious, life threatening sickness that needs professional medical help. But unfortunately, victims are often are unaware or are in denial that they are ill. Support from family and friends can be very helpful during rehabilitation.

References

Aaronson, Lauren. (2005). Anorexia nervosa. Web.

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C.C. (1998). The shrinking (con)cave man. Psychology Today. 2007. Web.

Chang, Maria L.. (1998). Walking a thin line – Celebrities, mass media and eating disorders. Science World. 2007. Web. 

DE Groat, Bernie. (1997). Media influence eating disorders. The University Record.

Gorrell, Carin. (2001). Never too thin. Psychology Today Magazine, Eating disorder. (2007).

Johnson, Craig. (n.d.) The many causes of eating disorders?. 2007. Web.

Marano, Hara Estroff. (2004). Body image: Before the obsession. Psyched for Success. Web.

Miller, Merry N, and Andrés Pumariega. (n.d.). Eating disorders: Culture and eating disorders. 2007. Web.

Myers, David G. (2007). Exploring psychology, 7th edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

National Eating Disorder Information Centre. (n.d.). Social, cultural & biological influence. 2007. Web.

National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.). Research results on eating disorders in diverse populations. 2007. Web.

Sullivan P.F. (1995) Mortality in Anorexia Nervosa. American Journal of Psychiatry, 152(7): 1073-4.

Swaminathan, Nikhil. (n.d.). Eating disorders. 2007. Web.

Than, Ker. (2005). Bulimia nervosa. Web.

Thompson, Colleen. (2007). Society.

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