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Women and Eating Disorders

This article discusses the specific risks of eating disorders among women.

In this article, you will find:

The starvation disorder
The binge-purge disorder

The starvation disorder

Women and Eating Disorders

Obesity and Overweight in Women
Women seem to be especially vulnerable to weight gain during three key periods of their lives: at the beginning of their menstrual cycle, after pregnancy, and after menopause. Women who are obese (with a BMI greater than 30) or overweight (BMI of 25-29.9) are at greater risk for gallbladder disease, respiratory disease, gout, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and several types of cancer. Overweight and obesity are also linked to a higher risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes, which all contribute to mortality in women. Furthermore, being obese or overweight is associated with poor pregnancy outcome, miscarriage, infertility, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Fact: According to the U.S. Surgeon General, overweight and obesity are increasing in both men and women. The latest estimates are that 34 percent of U.S. adults ages twenty to seventy-four are overweight, and an additional 27 percent are obese. About half of all women ages twenty to seventy-four are overweight or obese. The percentages of obese women among African-, Native-, and Mexican-American women are even higher.

Besides increasing the risk of several health problems, overweight and obesity place a great psychological burden on women. People who are obese can suffer from prejudice in society and enjoy a reduced quality of life. Eating disorders and perceptions of altered body images can begin early in a woman's life and continue throughout most of her life. Many women end up being dissatisfied with their bodies, having low self-esteem, and engaging in phases of dieting throughout life. Leading a healthy lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and plenty of physical activity is essential for women to reach and maintain a healthy weight.

Eating Disorders in Women
Eating disorders are complex and chronic illnesses that tend to be misdiagnosed and highly misunderstood. Some of the most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating. Another type of disorder under examination is extreme exercise to control weight. All of these disorders are on the rise in the United States and worldwide.

Many factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder, including personality, self-esteem, genetics, environment, and body chemistry.

Fact: Women seem to make up more than 90 percent of the people who have eating disorders. It is estimated that in the United States, at least 5 to 10 million females and 1 million males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders should be taken seriously. They require the help of a health-care provider as soon as symptoms begin to surface.

Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a person who literally starves himself or herself by eating little to no food. People who have this condition have a strong fear of body fat and weight gain. Anorexics refuse to eat. They exhibit an intense desire to be unrealistically thin, consistently repeat attempts at dieting, and experience excessive weight loss. To maintain their abnormally low body weight, anorexics may diet, fast, or overexercise. People with anorexia will do just about anything to get or stay thin, such as self-induced vomiting and/or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas. People with anorexia see themselves as fat, even though they are extremely thin.

One of the most dangerous hazards of anorexia is starvation. The body reacts to starvation by extreme thinness, brittle nails and hair, dry skin, a slow pulse, cold intolerance, constipation, and occasional diarrhea. In addition, a person may experience mild anemia, a loss of muscle mass, loss of the menstrual cycle, and swelling of joints. Malnutrition caused by anorexia may result in irregular heart rhythms and heart failure. The lack of nutrients can place anorexics at even greater health risk. For example, the lack of calcium places them at increased risk for osteoporosis both during their illness and in later life. Many anorexics suffer with clinical depression, anxiety personality disorders, and/or substance abuse. Unfortunately, many more are also at risk for suicide. It is estimated that one in ten anorexics will die from starvation, heart attack, or another serious medical complication, making this disorder's death rate among the highest for a psychiatric disease.

A person with anorexia may do the following:

  • Eat only certain or "safe" foods, usually those with very few calories and/or little fat.
  • Adopt strange rituals when eating, such as cutting food into very small pieces.
  • Spend more time playing or pushing food around on the plate than actually eating it.
  • Cook meals for others without eating any.
  • Engage in exercise compulsively.
  • Dress in layers to hide excessive weight loss.
  • Become more isolated, spending less time with family and friends.

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