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Dangerous obsession: for people with eating disorders, a focus on food can be a recipe for disaster.


At age 14, Kristin was a champion gymnast. But behind the scenes, she was in a battle for her life.

She'd become so obsessed with her weight that she counted every calorie that went into her body. Her weight--and energy level--dropped drastically. Even when the problem forced her to quit gymnastics, she still couldn't eat. She says, "The eating disorder had taken control of my life."

A similar scenario played out for Ari. In the summer before sixth grade, Ari went on a diet that veered out of control. Soon, like Kristin, she was starving herself. And when she did eat, she forced herself to vomit the food back up. Ari tried to hide her self-destructive behavior from family and friends. She says, "I wouldn't admit to myself that it was a problem because that was too scary for me." Feeling helpless, Ari sank into a deep depression.

Millions of Americans are in a life-or-death struggle with an eating disorder. The good news is that they can win--if they get help in time.


Kristin suffered from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which sufferers starve themselves due to fear of gaining weight. Like someone looking in a funhouse mirror, anorexics can't see how thin they really are. Maria Rago, who runs an eating disorders program at Linden Oaks Hospital in Illinois, says, "They might see themselves much differently than they actually look."


Other common eating disorders are bulimia nervosa, in which sufferers eat large amounts of food and then purge, or remove it from their bodies, and binge eating disorder, which involves eating large amounts of food without purging. Many sufferers, like Ari, develop symptoms of more than one eating disorder.

Even though the majority of anorexics and bulimics are young women, these deadly disorders can strike anyone: male or female, young or old, and people of any race. An estimated 1 million males suffer from anorexia or bulimia in the United States. Binge eating disorder strikes almost as many males as females.


Discovering what causes various eating disorders is like putting together the pieces of a complicated puzzle. Mary Pabst, a licensed clinical social worker, says: "There's no single thing that causes ah eating disorder--for anybody. It's sort of like the perfect storm. It's a bunch of different variables coming together at the same time."


Recent research shows that eating disorders may be connected to genes (units of hereditary material) as well as personality traits. Perfectionism is a common personality trait among anorexics. Rago explains, "If you expect yourself to be perfect, not only is that going to make dealing with your body image very, very difficult, but it also doesn't help in coping with life in general."

Not everyone with certain genes or personality traits will develop an eating disorder. But these factors could put a person at greater risk when a stressful situation arises. Kristin, who calls herself a perfectionist, believes her eating disorder was triggered by the pressure to excel in gymnastics and in her schoolwork. "When the stress and pressures were getting out of control, the only thing I could control was what went into my body," she says.

Ari, now 16, also believes that her eating disorder arose from her need to control something when her life seemed out of control. Her eating disorder struck after her family lost their home and belongings because of an air-quality issue. For other teens, the triggering factor can be getting teased about being overweight or feeling embarrassed about natural changes that temporarily make their bodies look awkward during puberty.

Each sufferer has a different story, but the common factor is the pain they experience. Pabst says: "The food preoccupation is really just a manifestation of what's underneath, which is that pain that you want to make go away. And one of the ways you make it go away is by focusing on something other than the pain you feel." But focusing on unhealthy eating habits only leads to more problems--some of them fatal.


Anorexia kills an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of sufferers. This self-starvation can cause heart and kidney failure, osteoporosis (bone mineral loss), and hair loss. People with other eating disorders might not be underweight, but their behaviors can cause serious physical damage. Bulimic purging can result in heart failure, damage to the esophagus, and tooth decay. Binge eating can lead to heart and gallbladder diseases, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Because of the deadly consequences, sufferers need to get help right away. But most deny that they have a problem. Ari got help only after friends at school caught on and told her family, who put her in Rago's eating disorders program. Rago thinks Ari probably would have died if she hadn't gotten treatment.


Professionals often work as a team to treat people with eating disorders. A nutritionist teaches healthy eating habits, while a therapist helps sufferers deal with the underlying issues that led to the disorder and teaches them healthy ways to cope with stress. Treatment takes time and hard work, but Rago believes that everyone can recover. To get this point across, she organizes a once-a-month Recovery Night in which someone who's overcome ah eating disorder speaks to patients who are still struggling to win the battle.

After working with a therapist and a nutritionist for a year and a half, Kristin conquered her eating disorder. She says, "It is possible to recover, and you can get back to living life and enjoying it." At age 19, she's back to doing what she loves--gymnastics--and is planning a career as a sports nutritionist.

After spending four years in treatment, Ari beat her eating disorder, too. She listened to the Recovery Night speakers, not believing she'd ever be one of them. "When I was in my lowest of lows, I couldn't even fathom life getting better," she remembers. Last April, it was Ari's turn to speak at Recovery Night. She says, "I knew from that moment on, I could do whatever I set my mind to."

Recognizing the Signs & GETTING HELP

People with eating disorders often won't admit--even to themselves--that they have a problem. Here are some signs that a serious problem exists:


Obsession with food, weight, and dieting

Dropping a large amount of weight but still worrying about being fat

Gaining a large amount of weight while appearing not to eat

Becoming socially isolated and withdrawn

Avoiding situations that involve having to eat in front of others, such as lunchtime at the school cafeteria

Signs of purging, such as frequently heading for the bathroom after meals

Excessive exercising, even when sick or injured

Friends often try to help by insisting that the sufferers eat or by telling them that they're too skinny. But Pabst warns: "The last thing you want to do is comment about their size or weight. They're very sensitive about that, and it'll push them further away." Instead, she recommends focusing on the behavior by saying something such as, "You're not hanging out with us anymore. You're not eating lunch with us, and you look sad, and I'm worried about you."

Above all, get help for the sufferer by talking with an adult such as a school nurse, a guidance counselor, a teacher, or a parent. You might be saving your friend's life.

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To learn more about eating disorders or to get help, contact:

* National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders 847-831-3438

* National Eating Disorders Association 800-931-2237


HEALTH: Eating Disorders

Dangerous Obsession


* According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, even children under age 10 may have eating disorders.

* Young female athletes who train very intensely may be al risk for developing "Female Athlete Triad." This disorder consists of three harmful conditions: eating disorders, disruptions in menstrual cycle, and osteoporosis.


* Why might a teen's family not realize the teen has an eating disorder? Why might the teen have trouble telling them?


HEALTH: Have your class research and report on the recommended dietary requirements for growing teens. Then, as a class, create a day's menu that meets the requirements.


* The Children's Hospital of Boston maintains a teen-friendly site on eating disorders: /eating_disorders.html

* Learn more about binge eating at: /your_mind/mental_health/binge_eating.html


DIRECTIONS: Answer the following in complete sentences.

1. What is anorexia nervosa?

2. Describe the eating pattern of a person suffering from bulimia nervosa.

3. What is binge eating and how does it harm the body?

4. What are the health risks of anorexia? What percent of sufferers die from this disorder?

5. What are three possible signs of a person with an eating disorder?



1. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which sufferers starve themselves due to fear 01 gaining weight

2. A person suffering from bulimia nervosa eats large amounts of food and then purges it from his or her body.

3. Binge eating involves eating large amounts of food without purging. It's harmful because it can lead to heart and gallbladder disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure

4. Anorexia can cause heart and kidney failure, osteoporosis, and hair loss An estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of sufferers die from anorexia

5. Answers will vary. Signs of a person with an eating disorder include: Obsession with food weight, and dieting; dropping a large amount of weight but still worrying about being fat; gaining a large amount of weight while appearing not to eat; avoiding situations that involve eating in front of others, such as lunchtime at the school cafeteria; signs of purging, such as frequently heading for the bathroom after meals; becoming socially isolated and withdrawn: and excessive exercising, even when sick or injured.
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Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Date:Nov 12, 2007
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