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‘Get Real’ by starting with a realistic body image

Throughout the week of Feb. 22 to 29, the NEDA will work to expand public understanding of eating disorders and promote positive body image and healthy eating. Eating disorders include extreme attitudes and behaviors involving weight and food that can have serious effects on health, relationships and other aspects of real life.

These disorders tend to develop in the teens or early 20s but are reported in people from age 5 to 60. The underlying causes are not fully understood. For some people, dieting, binging and purging may start as a way to cope with painful emotions or to feel in control; although over time, disordered eating behaviors will damage physical and emotional health, self-esteem and the sense of competence and control.

Eating disorders require professional help. For effective and long-lasting treatment, the Medical Society of the State of New York advocates medical management coupled with some form of psychotherapy or counseling, tailored to the patient’s individual needs and strengths. For a referral to a physician, contact your local county medical society.

Recognizing an Eating Disorder

The three most commonly recognized eating disorders — anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosas, and binge eating disorder — are severe, potentially life-threatening conditions. Denying the body proper nutrition can have ill effects on body and mind. Many sufferers, especially bulimics, successfully hide their symptoms, and so delay getting help. Becoming familiar with the major eating disorders will help you to recognize symptoms and get help for yourself and/or for others you care about.

Anorexia nervosa, or simply anorexia, is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. People with anorexia refuse to be satisfied with even minimally normal body weight, are intensely afraid of gaining weight and have distorted perceptions of the shape or size of their bodies. Denied nutrients needed to function normally, the body is forced to slow down its processes to conserve energy. The medical consequences can include abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, muscle loss and weakness, brittle bones and hair loss.

Bulimia nervosa, or bulimia, involves repeated episodes of overeating followed by purging — getting rid of the food and calories through vomiting, laxative abuse or obsessive exercising. Health consequences can include irregular heartbeat and possibly heart failure, ruptures during periods of binging, and tooth decay and staining from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting.

Binge Eating Disorder, or binging, is repeated compulsive overeating. While binge eaters don’t purge, they may fast or diet after binges and feel shame, disgust or guilt. Body weight can vary from normal to severely obese. Binge eaters have many of the same health risks as obese people, including heart and gall bladder disease.

Particularly Damaging to Young People

Eating disorders can be particularly damaging to young people because their bodies are still developing and are more readily impacted by poor nutrition. Parents, teachers and others in a position to influence young people can help prevent further damage from eating disorders by staying alert to weight fluctuations and irregular eating habits and recognizing that this is not “just a phase of growing up.”

Idealized images of beauty and attractiveness are often acknowledged as contributing to the rise of eating disorders. Such images are unrealistic for most people and have a negative impact on self-esteem, focusing attention on the “3Ds” often present in eating disorders: dieting, drive for thinness, and body dissatisfaction.

Banishing unrealistic expectations for your body depends on developing healthy eating practices and attitudes, eating when truly hungry, stopping when full, and listening to your body. More information on the symptoms, causes and where to get help is available from the National Eating Disorders Association at 800-931-2237 and online at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

This information is provided by the Medical Society of the State of New York. For more health-related information and referrals to physicians in your community, contact the New York City Department of Health by calling 311.

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