Myth vs. Fact: The Truth Behind Eating Disorders

by Krithika Pennathur

The first time I ever heard about an eating disorder was in high school. A single school assembly was gathered that encouraged the student body to learn about eating disorders and be aware of the medical facilities in Pittsburgh that can help with providing support to individuals who may have or are recovering from an eating disorder. I distinctly remember that many of my peers did not even fully understand that an eating disorder is a medical ailment and not something that should be welcome.

“Only young girls suffer from eating disorders. People only have eating disorders to become healthy—it’s just an over exaggerated diet. It’s not really harmful to have one.” These are merely a few of the innumerable misconceptions and assumptions that circle around this grave group of conditions.

 Actresses in the entertainment industry, children’s toys such as Barbie and advertisements with young women photoshopped to the point that they look barely human are the faces of “thin” bodies that society sees. Most of these models are quite popular among the growing youth today, thus fueling society’s romanticized vision of beauty. In reality, the size zero body portrayed in advertising is possessed naturally by only 5 percent of American females. Constant exposure to this vision can cause individuals to believe that these images uphold realistic standards of beauty.

Let’s start with a brief overview of the medical background. There are two major kinds of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Typically, anorexia nervosa is characterized by distorted body image, specifically a fear of gaining weight, and a lack of eating. Purging, which is excessive vomiting of food, is not a practice associated with anorexia. Additional symptoms include abnormal counts of red blood cells, low blood pressure, constipation, irregularities in the menstrual cycle, insomnia and dizziness. In contrast, bulimia nervosa is characterized by binge eating, which is defined by the American Psychological Association as an uncontrollable eating pattern. Individuals subsequently vomit or practice alternate ways of removing food from the digestive system. Other symptoms include feeling physical discomfort during and after eating, compulsively exercising and having mouth sores as well as damaged teeth. Some common symptoms of both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa include feeling extremely cold, irregularities in hormonal growth, loss of hair, darkening of the skin and poor nail growth.

Both disorders have a startling and devastating impact on affected individuals, targeting close to 24 million people in just the United States alone, with the numbers still growing. The mortality rate comes close to 4 percent. Among additional drastic statistics, nearly 19 percent of college women are bulimic while 20 percent of people suffering from anorexia die because of complications due to their deteriorating health.

Focusing in on the psychological effects of societal standards, a study was published in the late 1990s showing these very ramifications. Just from exposure to magazine pictures alone, 69 percent of girls surveyed in fifth to twelfth grade said that their idea of a perfect body shape was influenced and 47 percent reported wanting to lose weight. Speaking from personal experience, I myself have noticed that young individuals constantly being exposed to these standards in the mass media see it as completely acceptable to go on unhealthy diets in order to cater to an unrealistic standard of beauty.

One of the most troubling misconceptions about eating disorders, however, is who has them. Many people hold that only young women have these ailments, which is not true. Eating disorders are not only common with women of all ages, but they are likewise prevalent among men of all ages. For every three females that have an eating disorder, one male does too.  In fact, approximately 10-15 percent of individuals diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia are male.  Furthermore, we may be led to think that women in their teenage years are the only individuals who suffer from eating disorders. However, the epidemic is growing amongst adults as well. In various different countries, it has been increasingly proven that women over 30 years of age have had increasing problems with body image and improper dieting.

Another moving statistic is that 40 percent of male college football players show symptoms of or have had an eating disorder. One of the most common theories as to why so many individuals have eating disorders is that they have previously shown symptoms of eating disorders as children, but never fully recovered from having these consuming thoughts and practicing such behaviors. Additionally, when there is an emphasis on having a specific body type, especially in sports and dance, it encourages people to go to these extreme measures to attain the “ideal” body type.

Schools across the nation are starting to increasingly open up the conversation on eating disorders. For example, at the University of Virginia, there is a program called the “Body Positive Program” that tackles the harmful effects of body image and having eating disorders. From informative presentations to appointing “body positive” interns that go around campus to raise awareness through different events, a movement is being initiated on local levels. What it means to have one, the psychological implications and the resources that are offered are some of the topics covered. Still, the conversation is incomplete, as it is not yet opened up to adults.

There are currently around 43 million adult women suffering from an eating disorder in the United States. A prevailing stigma in admitting the need for help and overcoming obstacles, such as work and family stress, prevents many individuals from seeking treatment. Given the lack of a conducive environment to open up about their situations, the symptoms of these women are often brushed off as a “midlife” crisis effect. If undetected, eating disorders can cause very serious complications. As it turns out, these ailments carry the highest morbidity rate of any psychiatric illness. Those who have them further face a much higher risk for suicide and developing severe depression.

So what can we do about it? As college students, it is important that the student body is aware of the common symptoms and the resources nearby. We, as a school body, can start putting an end to the misconceptions and stigma around eating disorders. In addition to Pitt’s Student Health center, another resource in Pittsburgh is the Center of Problem Eating (COPE), which helps many patients with the problem of eating disorders by offering inpatient treatments and three forms of outpatient care that focus on the partial hospitalization program, the intensive outpatient program and the outpatient clinic. Working with families, COPE helps patients choose the correct treatment form in order to help with combating their eating disorder.  By providing comprehensive care to the patients and their families, COPE serves as an excellent resource.

Additionally, when having conversations about body positivity, it is vital to ensure that there is an inclusion of what is healthy eating and what is not. Being aware of the available resources, the symptoms and the conversations on eating disorders can help us combat the dangerous stereotype of only one type of demographic having eating disorders. As a result, the influences of the mass media and those unrealistic body expectations can be traded in for healthy lifestyles, body positivity and less inclinations of wanting to take drastic measures to change.