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About eating disorders
"Mirror, Mirror on the wall...who's the thinnest one of all?" According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 117 pounds. All too often, society associates being "thin", with "hard-working, beautiful, strong and self-disciplined." On the other hand, being "fat" is associated with being "lazy, ugly, weak and lacking will-power." Because of these harsh critiques, rarely are women completely satisfied with their image. As a result, they often feel great anxiety and pressure to achieve and/or maintain an imaginary appearance.
Eating disorders are serious medical problems. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are all types of eating disorders. Eating disorders frequently develop during adolescence or early adulthood, but can occur during childhood or later in adulthood. Females are more likely than males to develop an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are more than just a problem with food. Food is used to feel in control of other feelings that may seem overwhelming. For example, starving is a way for people with anorexia to feel more in control of their lives and to ease tension, anger, and anxiety. Purging and other behaviors to prevent weight gain are ways for people with bulimia to feel more in control of their lives and to ease stress and anxiety.
Although there is no single known cause of eating disorders, several things may contribute to the development of these disorders:
- Culture. In the United States extreme thinness is a social and cultural ideal, and women partially define themselves by how physically attractive they are.
- Personal characteristics. Feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and poor self-image often accompany eating disorders.
- Other emotional disorders. Other mental health problems, like depression or anxiety, occur along with eating disorders.
- Stressful events or life changes. Things like starting a new school or job or being teased and traumatic events like rape can lead to the onset of eating disorders.
- Biology. Studies are being done to look at genes, hormones, and chemicals in the brain that may have an effect on the development of, and recovery from eating disorders.
- Families. Parents’ attitudes about appearance and diet can affect their kids' attitudes. Also, if your mother or sister has bulimia, you are more likely to have it.
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Too much of a good thing can be very bad for you. Just like eating disorders, societal pressures to be thin can also push women to exercise too much. Over-exercise is when someone engages in strenuous physical activity to the point that is unsafe and unhealthy. In fact, some studies indicate that young women who are compelled to exercise at excessive levels are at risk for developing eating disorders.
Eating disorders and over-exercising go hand-in-hand — they both can be a result of an unhealthy obsession with your body. The most dangerous aspect of over-exercising is the ease with which it can go unrecognized. The condition can be easily hidden by an emphasis on fitness or a desire to be healthy. Like bulimia and anorexia, in which persons deny themselves adequate nutrition by restrictive eating behaviors, over-exercising is a controlled behavior that denies the body the energy and nutrition needed to maintain a healthy weight.
According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, a host of physical consequences can result from over-exercising — pulled muscles, stress fractures, knee trauma, shin splints, strained hamstrings, and ripped tendons.
Remember, fitness should be done within limits and integrated into your lifestyle, done in moderation like everything else in life. If exercising is getting in the way of your daily activities or relationships, you may need to slow down.
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More information on Eating disorders
Read more from womenshealth.gov
Anorexia Nervosa Fact Sheet - This fact sheet explains anorexia's causes, signs and symptoms, and its effects on the body. It also provides information for pregnant women who have or have had anorexia.
Binge Eating Disorder Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on binge eating disorder, including potential causes, associated risks, and possible treatments.
Bulimia Nervosa Fact Sheet - This fact sheet answers common questions about bulimia nervosa, including its causes, warning signs, complications, and available treatment options.
Explore other publications and websites
50 Ways to Lose the 3 Ds: Dieting, Drive for Thinness, and Body Dissatisfaction (Copyright © National Eating Disorders Association) - This tip sheet offers advice about how you can improve your body image and make sure your children grow up with a positive body image, too.
Binge Eating Disorder - This fact sheet describes the symptoms, causes, complications, and treatment of binge eating disorder, and gives a profile of those at risk for the disorder.
Compulsive Exercise (Copyright © Nemours Foundation) - This publication provides information on compulsive exercise, its warning signs, and the serious effects it can have on a teenager's health.
Consequences of Eating Disorders (Copyright © Academy for Eating Disorders) - This Web page describes the psychosocial and medical consequences of eating disorders over the long term. It has information about what happens to the different functions of your body, and other conditions that people with eating disorders are likely to have.
Diagnoses of Eating Disorders (Copyright © Academy for Eating Disorders) - This Web page describes the warning signs of various eating disorders and discusses how they are diagnosed. If you are worried about a friend or family member, this site can help you find out if certain behaviors could indicate an eating disorder.
Eating Disorders - This detailed booklet describes symptoms, causes, and treatments of eating disorders. It also includes information on getting help and coping.
Eating Disorders (Copyright © American Psychological Association) - This fact sheet describes anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, as well as who suffers from them and how a psychologist can help.
Eating Disorders (Copyright © Mayo Foundation) - This Web page describes the signs, symptoms, and causes of eating disorders, and gives information about treatments.
GirlsHealth.gov: Your Feelings - We have created the GirlsHealth.gov section to help adolescent girls (ages 10-16) learn more about some of the unique health issues and social situations they will encounter during the teen years. The feelings section provides resources and links to useful information to help you prepare to deal with some of the issues your girls will likely face.
How to Afford Appropriate Treatment for an Eating Disorder: A Guide for Patients & Their Families (Copyright © National Eating Disorder Association) - This publication provides detailed information about health insurance, where to find help for eating disorders, and where to get financial assistance for treatment.
How to Help a Friend with Eating and Body Image Issues (Copyright © National Eating Disorders Association) - This publication describes how you can help a friend who has a poor body image or an eating disorder.
Mental Health Services Locator - This website will help you locate mental health treatment facilities and support services in your state.
Orthorexia Nervosa (Copyright © National Eating Disorders Association) - This publication explains the symptoms of and treatment for orthorexia.
Risk Factors of Eating Disorders (Copyright © Academy for Eating Disorders) - This fact sheet discusses the risk factors that might make someone more likely to develop an eating disorder, such as gender, ethnicity, weight, and genetic factors.
Treatment (Copyright © Academy for Eating Disorders) - This fact sheet discusses different treatment options available for people with eating disorders. It includes information about the initial assessment, psychological treatments, medical treatments, and more.
What's Going On With Me? Evaluating Eating and Exercising Habits (Copyright © National Eating Disorders Association) - This fact sheet explains the difference between regular and "disordered" eating. It identifies behaviors that are common in people with disordered eating, and explains how these behaviors can take a toll on your mental and physical well-being.
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Content last updated September 22, 2010.
Resources last updated September 22, 2010.
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