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Section I–Common Health Problems - Eating Disorders

HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section I–Common Health Problems

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Eating Disorders

“One night, I sat
and watched my roommate enjoy eating a bagel with cream cheese and drinking
hot  chocolate. I wish I could enjoy food that much. I take hours
contemplating calories before I can put anything in my mouth.”

R., University of Texas

Five to 10 million adolescent girls and
women have an eating disorder. About 1 million males do. The 3 most common
eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating
disorder. These eating disorders are a coping mechanism. They result in an
obsession with food and/or weight; anxiety around eating; guilt; and severe
and adverse effects on psychological and physical health. Eating disorders
should be taken very seriously.

Causes & Risk Factors

No specific cause has been found for these
eating disorders. They affect persons from all socio-economic classes, ages,
genders, and ethnic cultures. Risk factors include:

Possible biological and genetic links,
including a family history of eating disorders

Pressure from society to be thin

Personal and family pressures

A history of sexual, physical, or alcohol

Fear of entering puberty or of sexual

Pressure for athletes to lose weight
(sometimes quickly to qualify for an event) or to be thin for competitive

Chronic dieting

Signs & Symptoms

For Anorexia

Loss of a significant amount of weight in a
short period of time

Intense, irrational fear of weight gain
and/or of looking fat. Obsession with fat, calories, and weight.

Distorted body image. The person feels and
sees himself or herself as fat when below
normal weight for his or her height and age.

A need to be perfect or in control in one
area of life

Marked physical effects, including loss of
hair, slowed heart rate, low blood pressure, feeling cold due to decrease in
body temperature, and absence of menstrual periods in females

For Bulimia

Repeated acts of binge eating and purging. Purging can be through vomiting; taking
laxatives, water pills, and/or diet pills; fasting; and exercising
excessively to “undo” the binge.

Excessive concern about body weight

Being overweight, underweight, or normal

Frequent dieting

Dental problems, mouth sores, and chronic
sore throat

Frequent time spent in bathrooms

Because of binge-purge cycles, severe health
problems, such as stomach damage, an irregular heartbeat, and kidney and
bone damage can occur.

For Binge Eating

Periods of continuous and sporadic eating
that are unrelated to hunger

Impulsive binging on food without purging

Repeated use of diets or sporadic fasts

Weight can range from normal weight to mild,
moderate, or severe obesity.


Treatment for eating disorders varies with
the disorder and its severity. The earlier the condition is diagnosed and
treated, the better the outcome. Treatment includes:

Counseling. This can be in individual,
family, group, and/or behavioral therapy.

Support groups

Antidepressant medication

Nutrition therapy

Outpatient treatment programs or
hospitalization, if the condition is severe enough

Questions to Ask

Have you lost more than 10 pounds by binging
and purging, fasting, dieting, and/or exercising on purpose, with any of
these problems?

  • An intense fear of gaining weight or of getting fat
  • You see yourself as fat even though you are at normal weight or are underweight.
  • You continue to diet and exercise excessively even though you have reached your goal weight.


Do you have recurrent episodes of eating a
large amount of food within 2 hours, are not able to control the amount of
food you eat, and do you do at least 3 of the following?

  • Eat very fast
  • Eat until you feel uncomfortably full
  • Eat when you are not hungry
  • Eat alone due to embarrassment
  • Feel depressed, disgusted, and/or guilty
    after you overeat

Do you hoard food, induce vomiting and/or take
laxatives and/or water pills right after meals?

Do you have a combination of the following problems with abnormal eating behaviors?
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • A slow pulse and/or low blood pressure
  • Rapid tooth decay
  • Low body temperature; cold hands and feet
  • Thin hair (or hair loss) on the head; baby-like hair growth on the body
  • Dry skin or fingernails that split, peel, or crack
  • Problems with bloating, digestion, or constipation
  • Three or more missed periods in a row or delayed onset of menstruation
  • Periods of depression, lethargy, euphoria, and/or hyperactivity
  • Tiredness, weakness, muscle cramps, tremors
  • Lack of concentration



Eating disorders are too complex and
physically harmful to be treated with self-care alone. Get professional
care. See “For Information, Contact” below. Along
with professional care, do the following:

Eat at regular times during the day. Don’t
skip meals; if you do, you are more likely to binge.

Remember that all foods are okay to eat.
Having a balance of foods is the goal.

Get regular, but moderate exercise 3 to 4 times
a week. If you exercise more than your health
care provider advises, make an effort to do
non-exercise activities with friends and family.

If you participate in competitive or other
sports, consult your coach, trainer, or sports
nutritionist for sound advice to be at a
healthy weight for your sport. Don’t fast, use laxatives, etc., to “make weight.” The health
consequences could be devastating and
definitely impair your performance.

Find success in your work, hobbies, and
volunteer activities.

Learn as much as you can about eating disorders
from books and related organizations. (See “For
Information, Contact
” below.)

Strive for Body Acceptance:

Accept that bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Don’t let your body define who you are. You
are much more than just a body.

You can be your worst critic. Most likely,
others find you more attractive than you see

Don’t judge others on the basis of their
appearance, body size, or shape.

Accept weekly and monthly changes in weight
and shape.

Explore all the things you have to offer others:
recognize your positive qualities.

Enjoy the people and positive things in your
life instead of spending a lot of energy pursuing
the perfect image.

Be aware of your weight prejudice. Explore
how those feelings may affect your self-esteem.

Don’t forget that you are not alone in your
pursuit of self-acceptance. It is a life-long
process that many people struggle with.

If You Have an Eating Disorder:

Follow your health care provider’s treatment
Attend counseling sessions and/or support
group meetings as
Identify feelings
before, during, and
after you overeat,
binge, purge, or
restrict food intake.
What is it that you are
hoping the food will
Set small goals that you can accomplish
easily and congratulate yourself for every
success. This is a process. Accept set backs
and learn from them.
Talk to someone instead of turning to food.
Work toward the point where weight is no longer
something by which you rate your success. Think about your accomplishments, positive
personal qualities, and valued relationships.
Learn to recognize your personal rights and to state how you feel.
You have the right to say no, the right to express your feelings and
your opinions, and the right to ask to have your needs met.
Keep a journal of your experiences, feelings,
thoughts, and insights, but not about what you
eat. The journal is or your eyes only, not for
others to read or judge. This is a safe place to be
honest with yourself. The journal can also help
you identify your “triggers” so that you may
prepare yourself to choose alternative strategies.
Don’t let the scale run your life. Better yet,
throw out the scale!

groups can be
very helpful for persons
with an eating disorder.

For Information, Contact:

Your school’s Student Health Service,
Student Counseling or Mental Health Service

National Eating Disorders


Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders

6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine
All rights reserved.
The content on this website is proprietary.

December 08, 2005