When Food Controls Life

When Food Controls LifeFrom Starvation to Binge Eating, an Estimated 8 Million Men and Women Struggle with Eating Disorders in the United States

By Christy Kearney

The thought of eating disorders typically conjures up the image of emaciated women obsessed with being thin at any cost. The truth of the matter is that eating disorders are more common than you may think and don’t always involve people starving themselves.

Even with the recent interest in eating disorders brought to light by the increasing number of super-skinny starlets appearing on red carpets and the covers of magazines, major misconceptions about eating disorders persist. Among those misperceptions are what causes eating disorders, who can be affected and how dangerous an eating disorder can be.

While unhealthy relationships with food and unrealistic body images seem to be at the heart of eating disorders, the reality is that most are physical manifestations of deeper issues. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are caused by an amalgamation of behavioral, emotional, psychological, interpersonal and social issues.

“Many patients I have seen with eating disorders are females who have been abused, neglected or have had a traumatic life experience,” says Megan Putt, a registered and licensed dietician at Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast. “They feel that they have lost control in their lives and take that anger and lack of control out on themselves. The weight loss is often viewed as a sense of achievement and self-discipline.”

Women of all shapes and sizes battle eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

“Many patients battle with more than one type of eating disorder, and many are left untreated or never tell their story,” Putt says. “Only one in 10 people with an eating disorder actually receives treatment.”

In fact, anorexia and bulimia are the most well-known eating disorders, but a national survey released in 2007 in the Medical Journal of Biological Psychiatry showed binge eating disorder as the most prevalent.

According to Putt, a binge eater would be someone who finishes a full dinner, has a piece of cake and then opens a pack of cookies and finishes the bag without being able to stop.

“This type of consumption is similar to an alcoholic who may just plan on having a few beers and ends up drinking the whole case,” she says.

It is true that females are more susceptible to eating disorders than males, but many young men still wrestle with the disease. In the United States, the ratio is about 7 to 1, with 7 million women and 1 million men struggling with eating disorders. Males are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behavior during preadolescence than at any other age. In some cases, young men are obsessed with gaining weight.

Eating disorders can be incredibly destructive physically, socially and emotionally. Putt says that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and that 20 percent of people suffering from anorexia will die from suicide or heart problems.

Each disorder has unique health risks. Anorexia causes the body to slow down and ultimately shut down as it tries to compensate for the nutrients missing from a regular intake of food. Bulimia can result in digestive issues and malfunction of major organs. Binge eating disorder has similar risks to obesity, including issues with blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and gallbladder disease.

Putt warns that most individuals with an eating disorder are in denial and may resist being confronted. She says the best way to address the situation is to “confront them with your concerns, expressing how much you care about them.”

Parents should be aware of their own eating and diet habits and should be involved in what their children are watching on television, Putt advises.

“Children are so influenced by their surroundings and the mass media, which can alter their perception of what society thinks is ‘normal,’” she says.

To learn more about eating disorders and treatment options, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org.