Eating disorders a mental struggle

By Ivana Susic

February is Body Awareness Month. This awareness is about more than how the latest trends complement one’s figure; it is a call to look closely at ourselves and those around us.  According to the National Eating Disorders Association, Americans spend more than $40 billion dollars a year on dieting and diet-related supplements. On average, 91 percent of women have dieted during their college years.

Sometimes dieting can spiral out of control and become an eating disorder.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders affect approximately 11 million men and women. Eating disorders are usually defined as either anorexia nervosa, which NEDA defines as self-starvation and drastic weight loss, or bulimia nervosa, which is characterized by binge eating followed by purging.

There is also binge eating, where the individual compulsively eats then feels guilty for doing so. The final category is eating disorders not otherwise specified; people who do not fit the criteria for one of the major disorders but are still at risk for serious health and emotional problems.

Susie Roman, program coordinator for NEDA, said what can start as an attempt to diet can become an obsession.

“One of the biggest things we try to get across is that eating disorders are mental disorders, not lifestyle choices,” Roman said. “They do require professional help.”

Individuals with a family history of mental disorders are at a higher risk for developing the disorder, as there is a genetic component.

“Anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental condition,” Roman said.

Warning signs of an eating disorder include a preoccupation with food, avoiding meal times,  refusal to eat many foods, excessive exercise, binge eating, vomiting, constant use of laxatives and drastic weight loss, along with swelling in the face or decaying teeth in the case of bulimia.

Over the last four years, Dr. Peter Doyle, postdoctoral fellow in the Eating Disorders Program for the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, has headed a study on how people with anorexia cope in their daily lives.

Doyle and his colleagues have studied participants’ moods and how they are affected by daily events via responses with a handheld device.Boyle said the hope is to gain a better idea how eating disorders are triggered by life and mood in people affected by the various disorders.

The reason the study has taken so long, Doyle explained, is that many people are not willing to ask for help for the disorder.

“Eating disorders tend to thrive in secrecy,” he said.

This presents a challenge in getting people to come to the clinic, Doyle said. People do not usually seek treatment or do not know the treatment options.

“Too often people have the misconception that nothing can be done,” Doyle said.  “We want to dispel that myth.”

Laura Discipio, executive director for the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, said that friends need to find other things to compliment each other on besides appearances. Telling a

friend they lost a lot of weight is not support. Sometimes that weight loss can signal a much more serious problem.

“By the time you can tell someone has an eating disorder, it’s been going on for quite some time,” Discipio said.

She said women are not the only ones affected. The rate of men with eating disorders has increased to over a million of the cases. However, men tend to practice bulimia or excessive exercise more than the restriction associated with anorexia, Discipio said.

One thing to keep in mind is finding ways to support one another, Discipio said. We forget to focus on intelligence, encouragement and staying positive. All too often people complain about the things they don’t like about themselves and feeling fat. This behavior needs to be countered.

“Fat is not a feeling,” she said. “What else are you feeling?”

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is Feb 21- Feb 27

For more information on Dr. Doyle’s study, go to