Analysis: Eating disorders, America’s misunderstood mental illness


Want to get a head start on your spring weight loss and fat burn? Rebuild your chicken legs… and pudgy love handles with muscle with these no-nonsense routines.

This headline from a “Men’s Fitness” account on Twitter is just one example of the endless stream of media messages promoting weight loss, muscle gain, dieting and having a perfect physique: anything to leverage the public’s shaky self-esteem. For over 30 million people in the U.S., these messages only increase the pressure for teens struggling with body image problems. According to clinical therapists, eating disorders in our country can easily spiral out of control, camouflaged as a fitness regiment. In fact, these disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Food or body image obsessions associated with the disorders disrupt eating or exercise habits. The symptoms fall under three major categories — anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating — each with different symptoms. Individuals with symptoms applying to multiple categories are diagnosed with “eating disorders not otherwise specified.”

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by the feeling of being overweight and the desire to be thinner. Generally, this leads to severe food restrictions or excessive exercise. This rigid, perfectionist mentality causes extreme physical instability due to the lack of necessary nutrients. People with anorexia have only 80 percent of their ideal body weight, typically.

Bulimia nervosa is a pattern of overeating followed by compensatory behaviors — or “purging” — to counteract binging episodes. These compensatory actions can take the form of induced vomiting, laxative use or intense exercise. With this binge-and-purge disorder, it is possible to maintain a healthy weight while severely lacking in important nutrients.

Binge-eating is characterized by a loss of control over one’s diet, but a lack in compensatory behavior. It consists of over-eating, even when full, often large amounts in a short time. This causes extreme weight gain, often reaching levels classified as obese, and it is the most common eating disorder in the United States.

None of these classifications discriminate; eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, or race. That being said, people with a family history of eating disorders are more susceptible to developing a disorder.

But perhaps the most powerful influence when it comes to eating disorders is the media. Between subtle photoshopping in magazines and extreme workout routines on Twitter, people of all ages are bombarded with “the perfect figure.” A 1995 study analyzed the eating practices of about 60 teenage girls over a three-year period following the introduction of television to the Fiji islands. One month after exposure to the media, three percent of girls induced vomiting to control weight. Three years later, that amount jumped to 15 percent.

Licensed clinical social worker Theresa Bussert believes people are often unaware of the media’s power over their self-image.

“If you think about advertising, everything to sell a product is to target insecurity,” Bussert said. “Even if you don’t read it, the image gets imprinted in [the] unconscious brain.”

While there is a constant flood of ways to “transform your body,” the negative consequences are rarely discussed.

An NNHS student has battled an eating disorder since middle school, and agrees that the disorders need more awareness. The girl agreed to be interviewed anonymously.

“Nobody wants to address it. I think it’s just [that] people don’t want to realize that there’s something out there that they can’t fix,” she said.

Eating disorders are not a character flaw or a sign of vanity.  The media frequently selects to project the face of eating disorders as girls with stick-thin model appearances, but this represents only a small portion of those afflicted with the disorder. As these stereotypes grow in popularity, the media further cements the notion that only skinny people can suffer from eating disorders.

The NNHS student noted that body image can play a role in the onset of an eating disorder, but not to the hyperbolic extent seen on television.

“It’s not always that you want to be stick-thin. Sometimes you just want to be a little bit different and it just goes too far and you don’t realize it,” the girl said.

What may start as a perfectly reasonable fitness goal can quickly become uncontrollable. For instance, clinical therapist Mansi Sant, who owns a private practice, explained that an individual may have a dormant genetic trait that is later triggered by a change in exercise or eating patterns. Once an individual begins an average and achievable fitness goal, the trait can show its true colors and develop into an obsessive habit.

Body image and weight consciousness isn’t limited to models, nor is it limited to women. NNHS JV wrestler Will deBolt has witnessed the extremes athletes will go to in pursuit of weight loss.

“I’ve seen plenty of the guys on the [wrestling] team not eat for an entire day before they have to weigh in, or I’ve seen people eat before the day they weigh in but spend all day missing class running on the treadmills and the elliptical [machines] trying to sweat off that weight,” deBolt said.

According to deBolt, the coaches at NNHS never promote these habits, but rather help the wrestlers stay safe as they independently regulate their fitness. Weight management methods that wrestlers use may not be a long-term habit, but the behaviors mimic those of eating disorders, and drastic changes in weight and nutrition pose serious health risks. Additionally, high pressure on individual performance and appearance poses a greater potential for self-esteem issues to spiral into an eating disorder.

Self-esteem plays a critical role in personal health, but many turn a blind eye to the mental aspect of disordered eating. With the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, the severity and danger these disorders pose often go unnoticed. In fact, every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder, and one in five deaths of people suffering from anorexia are from suicide. It is a behavior that is addictive. The mental stigma is just as serious as the physical symptoms, but few understand that, according to Sant.

“A majority of our society still feels that addictions are a choice that you’re making,” Sant said.

As with many mental disorders, there is no quick fix, but there are treatment methods for those suffering from eating disorders. According to professionals and the student alike, an important first step is to regularly meet with a psychologist, therapist or counselor who can work with a client to meet their individual needs. Often, there will be an entire medical team to help one person, including a nutritionist or dietitian alongside a mental health professional. In addition, a solid support system of family and friends can do wonders in the recovery process.

Nonetheless, eating disorders are here to stay. In the opinion of the anonymous student, personal acceptance carves the way to getting the help a person may need.

“You’re going to be dealing with it for a long time, so you just have to accept it, and accept the fact that you need help, because I think that’s the hardest thing to do when you’re first realizing it,” the girl said.

If you or someone you know are in need of help or need someone to talk to, please call the toll-free and confidential National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline at 1-(800)-931-2237, which is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. CST and Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m CST. For immediate crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer from Crisis Text Line.

For more information on eating disorders, visit the NEDA website or The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc website.

Clinical therapist Mansi Sant can be contacted at 1-(773)-547-0800 or at [email protected]