Eating Disorders: Signs and Causes
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.
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