By the HELP Committee and Havre Public Schools for Havre Daily News
Eating disorders range from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa to binge eating, compulsive exercising and other lesser-known forms.
Ninety percent of people with eating disorders are female, and 10 percent are male.
Eating disorders can affect every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. By the time friends or relatives suspect their loved one has an eating disorder, serious physical damage may have already occurred. Ultimately, starving, stuffing, and purging prove fatal.
Along the way, physical consequences include: irregular heartbeat; kidney damage; liver damage; rupture of esophagus; disruption of menstrual cycle, infertility; stunted growth due to undernutrition; weakened immune system; anemia, malnutrition; disruption of body's fluid/mineral balance; permanent loss of bone mass and fractures.
If a binge-eating disorder leads to obesity, add the following physical consequences: increased risk of cardiovascular disease; increased risk of bowel, breast, and reproductive cancers; increased risk of diabetes; arthritic damage to joints.
Physical consequences loved ones may detect include these warning signs: icy hands and feet; destruction of teeth; loss of muscle mass; swollen glands in neck and stones in salivary ducts, causing "chipmunk cheeks"; excess hair on face, arms and body; dry, blotchy skin with an unhealthy gray or yellow cast; fainting spells, seizures, sleep disruption, bad dreams, mental fuzziness; low blood sugar, including shakiness, anxiety, restlessness and a pervasive itchy sensation all over the body.
Not surprisingly, a host of psychological problems result as well. Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders Inc. or ANRED, a Web-based clearinghouse of information regarding eating disorders, states, "It is a sad paradox that the person who develops an eating disorder often begins with a ... (belief) that weight loss will lead to improved self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. The cruel reality is that persistent undereating, binge eating, and purging have the opposite effect."
People with eating disorders typically struggle with one or more of the following complications: anxiety, self-doubt; guilt and shame; hypervigilance, thinking other people are watching and waiting to confront or interfere; obsessive, compulsive behaviors; feelings of alienation and loneliness; feelings of hopelessness and helplessness; depression that can lead to suicide.
Havre youth are clearly at risk for developing eating disorders. Consider this evidence found in the local 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Of the high school students who participated in the survey, 54 percent described their weight as "about right," and 29 percent saw themselves as slightly or very overweight. Yet 41 percent were trying to lose weight.
In the middle school, 58 percent of participating students described their weight as "about right," and 24 percent saw themselves as slightly or very overweight. Yet 43 percent were trying to lose weight.
Multiple factors contribute to these disconnects of logic.
The person may be genetically predisposed to anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. New research suggests that these people seem to have a disproportionate share of eating disorders.
Families that overvalue physical appearance may trigger an eating disorder in their children. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders announced in its summer 2001 newsletter that the most powerful risk factors for the development of an eating disorder are: 1) a mother who diets, 2) a sister who diets, and 3) friends who diet.
Members of certain social, athletic, and vocational groups tend to be at greater risk. This includes wrestlers, jockeys, cheerleaders, sorority members, dancers, gymnasts, runners, models, actresses, entertainers, and male homosexuals.
Television, magazines and movies do not present images reflective of the real world. Instead, these images suggest that women are impossibly tall and thin, and men are impossibly muscular and powerful.
Turning the tide
So, what can family members do to protect themselves? ANRED and the Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line make these suggestions:
Give your family the gift of a healthy role model. A healthy role-model parent is a child's best protection against a whole host of problems, including life-ruining eating disorders. Show people how you take care of yourself in healthy, responsible ways. Demonstrate how a competent person takes charge, solves problems, negotiates relationships, and builds a satisfying life without resorting to self-destructive behaviors.
If you are a woman, get comfortable with your own body and enjoy it, no matter what its size and shape. Never criticize your appearance. If you do, you teach others to be overly concerned about externals and critical of their own bodies.
If you are a man, never criticize anyone's appearance, especially a woman or child. Even comments made in jest can wound deeply and puncture self-esteem.
Don't allow anyone in the family to tease others about appearance.
Emphasize the importance of fit and healthy bodies, not thin bodies.
Make mealtime pleasant.
Help your children build and commit themselves to an active lifestyle by encouraging activities such as biking, walking and swimming. These activities are enjoyable and can be done daily.
Talk to your children about the normal body changes expected at puberty. Sometimes kids interpret developing female curves as "getting fat." Girls need to know that normal development is necessary for health, in general, and for future healthy childbearing, in particular. Boys need to hear the message, too, so they can rise above the "no fat chicks" mentality so prevalent in adolescent male culture.
Visit www.girlpower.gov. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsors this Web site for girls and the adults who care about them. Its goal is to encourage girls 9 to 13 years old to make the most of their lives. As a national public education campaign, Girl Power targets multiple issues. Click on "Bodywise" for information and fun activities regarding body image, nutrition, fitness, and eating disorders.
The HELP Committee and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line is committed to providing club members and the community with opportunities and education for a healthy lifestyle. For more information on this or other related topics, call 265-6206.