In today’s society, people are forced to face many social pressures. Adolescents and young adults in particular are exposed to countless images and concepts of “ideal” appearances. These unrealistic body images often lead to eating disorders that contribute to long lasting health complications. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating are three of the most well-known, and most prevalent, eating disorders. All three are linked to psychological issues that can be extremely difficult to treat effectively. Anorexia and bulimia both lead to abnormally low weight and both disorders share symptoms of the body wasting away due to lack of nutrition. In contrast, binge eating leads to obesity and all of the health issues that go with it.
Anorexic individuals constantly believe they are overweight, and they eat extremely small amounts of food in an attempt to lose weight. These people are, however, often already underweight. And starvation is never a healthy means of weight loss, regardless of weight. The nutritional deficits that occur in anorexic individuals lead to numerous other health problems. Muscles tend to waste away because one of the mechanisms through which we can raise blood sugar levels – which are low when we don’t eat enough – is to break down muscles into amino acids which are then converted to glucose in the liver. Breaking down one particularly important muscle – the heart – leads to more permanent health complications. Bones also deteriorate, although the exact reasons as to why the body breaks down bone in times of starvation are unclear. One student in my physiology class suggested that it may be the body’s way of ensuring that the decreased skeletal muscle mass can still effectively move the bones. It would be pretty detrimental to survival if we suddenly found our own bones too heavy for our muscles to move. Possibly the most devastating effect of anorexic malnutrition is the neurological deterioration. The brain relies solely on glucose to function. When glucose levels are chronically low, brain cells die off.
Bulimia is not the ability to read minds, it is the disorder associated with binging and purging. Bulimic patients are not nearly as malnourished as anorexic patients, but still have the underlying psychological issues. Due to the nature of purging, which is often accomplished by vomiting, bulimic individuals often have sore throats and worn down enamel on their teeth from the repeated exposure to stomach acid. They are also usually quite dehydrated because vomiting ejects a large volume of fluid.
The third eating order I will discuss is overeating, or binge eating. Binge eating is usually associated with stressful situations; people look to food for comfort. Unfortunately, this overeating leads to unhealthy weight gains which then cause more psychological distress which leads to more eating. It’s a vicious cycle once it starts. Understanding the pattern of one’s stress eating is a good first step in preventing the cycle from beginning. Some people know that they stress eat so they keep a supply of healthy snacks nearby, thus limiting the chances of ingesting large quantities of fats and sugars.
As always, the best treatment is preventive care. We need to, as a society, better address body image issues and self-confidence in young adults. Additionally, we need those with eating disorders to feel more comfortable coming forward and to ask for help. Part of the issues treating eating disorders is the shame that can accompany them and the unwillingness to seek help. If we can address these two points, I believe we can make meaningful progress in improving both psychological and physical health for our population.