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Eating disorders

color-pencil drawing of a thin woman seeing an over-weight self reflected in a mirror

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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For more information on exercise and healthy eating, visit our fitness and nutrition section.

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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Content last updated: September 22, 2010.

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