Common Illnesses

Eating Disorders

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious, life-threatening disorder of deliberate self-starvation with wide-ranging physical and emotional components. The term "Anorexia Nervosa" is a misnomer as it means "lack of appetite due to nerves." In actuality, the reverse is true. The person becomes obsessed with food, weight, counting calories and vigorous exercising. Because of possible emotional problems, s/he denies this hunger and does not eat.

Some of the emotional and physical signs are:

  • 20-25% loss of body weight
  • Depression
  • Loss of hair
  • Growth of body hair (lanugo)
  • Loss of period
  • Distorted body image
  • Low pulse rate
  • Extremely sensitive to cold temperatures
  • Intense fear of becoming fat, which doesn't lessen as weight loss progresses
  • Compulsively exercising or hyperactivity
  • Isolated from family and friends
  • Weighing frequently
  • Perfectionistic
  • Collects recipes and likes to cook/bake
  • Cuts food into small pieces and plays with food
  • Wears baggy clothing or layers of clothing
  • Spends lots of time doing schoolwork
  • Nervous at mealtime
  • Tearful, uptight, overly sensitive, restless
  • Excessive constipation

What is Bulimia?

Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of becoming fat. It involves a recurrent pattern of binge-eating (rapid consumption of large amounts of food during a short period of time) followed by purging (self-induced elimination). Bulimic episodes are not caused by any medical illness.

Some of the physical, behavioral and emotional signs and symptoms are:

  • Eating high-calorie foods, often secretly, during a binge
  • Purging by means of self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, diuretics or emetics
  • Excessive exercise or fasting
  • Preoccupation with food, weight and bodily concerns
  • Frequent weight fluctuations due to alternating binges and fasts
  • Feeling unable to control eating behavior
  • Feelings of depression and self-criticism after eating binges
  • Difficulty in swallowing and retaining food
  • Swollen and/or infected salivary glands

Physical dangers of bulimia are wide ranging and can be life threatening. They include:

  • Damage to esophagus, sometimes causing pain and/or internal bleeding
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Potassium deficiency
  • Severe dental problems (due to vomiting), ie. tooth decay, loss of tooth enamel
  • Digestive problems
  • Bursting blood vessels in the eyes
  • Fatigue, headaches, weakness, dizziness
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart failure

Warning Signs of Anorexia and Bulimia

  • Making excuses during lunch period why s/he is not eating
  • Dissatisfied with weight in spite of excessive weight loss
  • Going to the restroom often, especially after meals
  • Wearing layers of clothing; always cold
  • Loss of hair
  • Red knuckles from forced vomiting; smell of vomit in restroom
  • Lack of concentration; fuzzy and incoherent thinking
  • Complaining about dizziness and possibly experiencing fainting spells
  • Seems angry, uptight, crying more easily
  • Buying large amounts of food that are disappearing quickly
  • Looking thinner and continuing to lose weight
  • Sudden onset of severe tooth decay
  • Discussing "dieting," "calories," "weight," and "exercise" a great deal
  • Using laxatives, diuretics, diet pills. Complaining of constipation
  • Spending more time alone; less with friends and family
  • Cutting up food in tiny pieces, playing with food on plate
  • Collecting recipes
  • Eager to cook and bake for family and friends
  • Petty stealing of money to buy food for binges

How Relatives and Friends Can Help

There are certain things you can do if you suspect someone may have Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia:

  • Tell the person you are concerned about her/him. Let her/him know that you are scared, you care and you would like to help. S/he will be less defensive.
  • Do NOT discuss weight, the number of calories consumed or particular eating habits or rituals. Do NOT focus on looks or how s/he "ought to" eat or look. Try to discuss other things besides food, weight, counting calories and exercise. Try to discuss her/his feelings. (anger, hurt, sadness, disappointment)
  • Encourage her/him to talk to a parent, a parent's friend, a teacher, a school nurse or a counselor. If s/he refuses to or becomes angry, try helping her/him reach out to one person s/he may feel close to. Perhaps you can talk to an adult who will try talking to this person.
  • Do not say "you look terribly thin" or "you look gaunt" or "you're too skinny." The person suffering from anorexia or bulimia will interpret this as a compliment. S/he wants to be thin, thinner and the thinnest. S/he thinks that the thinner you are, the better you are.
  • Do not comment or compliment her on any weight gain you may notice. "You look good" or "you look healthy" are things you may want to say. S/he will then interpret this as "Oh my gosh, I must be fat."
  • Try to remember s/he does not feel good about themselves in any way besides losing weight. S/he does not have any goals other than becoming thinner.
  • There is only so much a friend or family member can do. This is frustrating when you care about someone. You cannot make this person eat. It won't help and it won't work. Try to find a support group or educational meeting where you can share your concerns.

For more information about treatment, contact the Counseling Center.