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Eating Disorders: Anorexia and Bulimia

Learn how to identify the signs of an eating disorder, and why it can be life-threatening.

Eating Disorders: Anorexia and Bulimia

Eating disorders are diseases in which weight control and eating behaviors have gone so far as to become life- and health-threatening. They can result from a diet taken too seriously, a hope to improve performance, a desire to please others, goals of becoming a model or making a weight class, or an extreme sense of perfectionism and even competition to be thinner than others.

Eating disorders are an actual medical classification in which food is limited or purged in order to be thin. They are classified as psychiatric disorders and are very serious. The driving force is always a poor and distorted body image, low self-confidence, and a drive for perfectionism. Eating disorders can result from peer pressure, although most girls and women with eating disorders isolate themselves from others. The psychological aspects of disordered eating stem not only from trouble with body image, but also from feeling a need for control. Eating disorders are common among girls and women who are type A personalities with a desire for perfection and an ability to obsess so much over their drive to be thin, that they neglect their body's need for food. Athletes with a tendency toward eating disorders include jockeys, dancers, skaters, gymnasts, aerobic or fitness instructors, swimmers, and divers. Because of these athletes' excellent ability for self-discipline, they are capable of going to great lengths to lose weight.

Eating disorders are identified as either bulimia or anorexia, although some can have components of both. Anorexia athletica is a newer classification that recognizes extreme exercise as a method of purging calories. Girls and women with eating disorders can recover but require much social, family, and counselor support along with lifetime eating habit and body image changes.

Bulimia is a vicious cycle of eating and purging. Eating can be bingeing but can also be a regular meal; purging is done in a variety of ways, although most commonly purging is by vomiting. Other ways to purge include the use of medications such as laxatives and diuretics or by extreme amounts of exercise. These are all very dangerous behaviors. Bulimia can result in erratic heart rates, loss of tooth enamel, and disturbances of electrolytes the body needs to regulate muscle, nerve, and heart function. Not only does it cause fatigue, dehydration, and poor body function, in athletes it causes poor performance and could lead to serious episodes of passing out. The worst possibility is a heart attack, which can be deadly. Bulimia is very common, with statistics suggesting one-fourth of college students exhibit some bulimic behavior.

Body Signs of Bulimia

  • Eroded tooth enamel
  • Dehydration
  • Chubby cheeks
  • Weakness
  • Scraped knuckles
  • Broken blood vessels in face
  • Bad breath
  • Stomach and bowel problems
  • Inability to hold down a meal
  • Coughing, lung problems
  • Easy vomiting
  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Irregular heartbeat
Anorexia, the disease of restricting calories, is a very life-threatening problem. Anorexia is an extremely distorted body image of feeling fat while being grossly underweight. Unfortunately, many girls and women have died from this disease because the body simply cannot live without food. It might function for a while in "starvation mode," but there is only so much it can do for itself. All living creatures need food to exist; there is no way around it.

Girls and women with anorexia are starving themselves and are unhealthfully thin. They constantly feel tired and are unable to keep up in practice, school, or work. Their hair becomes dry and their skin scaly and even hairy as the body tries to keep itself warm because it has no fat. The heart rate slows but speeds up quickly with even small movements. Anorexia interferes with all aspects of life; it is as life-dominating as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Anorexics are addicted to a quest for unobtainable, unrealistic, unhealthy thinness. If you have any of these symptoms, talk with your coach, trainer, friends, or parents. If that is too threatening, refer to the resources at the end of this book for help. Recovering from eating disorders takes professional help.

Eating disorders are more common than you think and should not be kept secret. Specialists in nutrition or psychology and doctors trained in eating disorders can provide supportive, effective help to return you to functioning in life at a healthy weight. Having the additional support of a friend, trainer, or family member can help you begin healing and returning to athletics and regular social activities. Seeking help will save your health and might save your life.

Body Signs of Anorexia

  • Dry skin
  • Erratic heartrate
  • Brittle nails
  • Protruding ribs and spine
  • Fine hair on face and body
  • Bruises
  • Hair loss on head
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Muscle weakness
  • Yellow tint to skin
  • Hollow facial features
  • Absent or irregular periods
  • Shrunken breasts
Anorexia Athletica
Anorexia athletica is working out or exercising too much without adequate calories. This is a common problem among endurance athletes who overexercise while restricting calories to maintain low body fat. Highly active endurance athletes require an increase in daily calories between 2,000 and 3,000 calories a day more than women who do not work out at these levels. If these amounts of calories are not obtained, they can be classified as suffering from an eating disorder. Women who do more than six hours of intense aerobic exercise strictly for weight control (not playing a sport, hiking, or recreational activity) may be at risk of anorexia athletica. Anorexia athletica is usually associated with the female athlete triad.

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