Eating Disorders: Signs and Causes

The Signs
Although the reasons for eating disorders are diverse, the symptoms are quite common. Some of the symptoms of an eating disorder are obsessive exercise, calorie counting, fat gram counting, starvation or restriction, a compulsive interest in health and food issues, self-induced vomiting, and the use of diet pills, laxatives or diuretics. Another symptom is a persistently negative body image expressed constantly with statements like "I am so fat," "I hate my body," and "If I was thin everything would be better." People with eating disorders may express some of the above listed symptoms in patterns, fluctuating between what seems like healthy eating patterns and harmful ones.

The Causes
Eating disorders are in fact distinguished more by the emotions that underlie them than by the eating habits that accompany them. A person who suffers from anorexia or bulimia may not even be abnormally thin; they may simply express an obsession with their weight rather than starve themselves or vomit after eating. Eating disorders also do not all have the same emotional source. For some women eating disorders are the result of an extreme need for control or a constant need for acceptance. For others it may be the result of sexual abuse and/or a sense that they do not deserve pleasure and so must deny themselves. For some anorexic women starving themselves serves as a test of their limits, a measure of how much control they have over themselves and their emotions. For others still it may be a combination of all the above with low self esteem.

Many of the symptoms of an eating disorder are also associated with a number of other psychiatric problems. Eating disorders are very frequently associated with many other psychiatric illnesses. We don't know exactly what causes eating disorders. Many of the things that are theorized to cause them are also thought to cause other psychological problems.

Are You at Risk?
Being female is the biggest risk factor in developing an eating disorder, as women suffer from either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa with a frequency nine or ten times greater than men. Beyond that, the answer is more complicated. Eating disorders are a result of social, genetic, and environmental factors.

Social pressures are the reason women are afflicted with eating disorder more than men are. Data from studies that have tracked obese women against their healthier counterparts have shown that fat carries a definite stigma with it in our culture. The larger women in these studies were found to be more impoverished, to be less successful academically, and to have a lower chance of marriage than other women did. Thus, media and culture can create incredible pressure for a woman to be thin.

A woman's personal background may increase her chances of developing an eating disorder. In many cases, teenagers who feel that their families do not provide them with enough attention, or if the family is abusive, may turn to food as an aid to their problems. This establishes a complex relationship with food, where it can become both a source of stress alleviation as well as the source of anxiety. Presumably, if a young woman is raised in an environment where she feels nourished, she may be less likely to develop either anorexia or bulimia, since her family is supplying her with the emotional support she requires.

Recent research has indicated that some women are biologically predisposed to develop eating disorders, either through a chemical imbalance or through genetics. For example, it has been shown that low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter used in the brain, can disrupt normal eating patterns. As for the genetic factor, a few studies with twins indicate that at least a few cases of eating disorders may be attributed to inheritance. It is important to note, however, that neither one of these biological bases may be the sole determining factor in whether a woman develops an eating disorder. Instead, they can increase the likelihood that she may become sick, especially though the influences of either social or personal history.

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