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Back to Basics: Anorexia

by Kate Pittignano


Harvard College graduate Kristina Saffran describes her experience with anorexia differently than many of the stories we have heard in the past. She notes, “While our societal obsession with thinness can certainly exacerbate the illness, in reality, eating disorders have some of the strongest genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of any mental illness.” (https://www.theprojectheal.org/kristinas-story)


Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by the need to excessively control calorie intake and involves rapid weight loss, or lack of appropriate weight gain in children, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. It is a serious physical and psychological illness that has long term implications.

Contrary to common knowledge, there are two subtypes of anorexia. The first is the most commonly portrayed type by the media which includes severe restrictions on the amount and type of food intake. This type can manifest itself through calorie counting, exclusion of certains groups, like fats, or extreme rules regarding food, such as only eating foods of a certain color.


The second type of anorexia primarily involves restricting one’s food intake as well, but also entails purging and may include binging. The difference between this type of anorexia and bulimia is that those with bulimia complete this cycle more frequently and those with anorexia tend to be underweight, while those with bulimia tend to be a healthy weight, though their overhealth is suffering (https://www.nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/types/anorexia-nervosa/).


Along with the two types, anorexia has many causes, which often work in conjunction to lead to this illness. Some people may have personality traits, such as extreme perfectionism, that can make them more likely to develop an eating disorder. Additionally, obsessive compulsive tendencies as well as higher levels of anxiety can lead people to control their food intake more severely.


Furthermore, western culture has shifted to place an unhealthy value on thinness, which in turn pressures youth, and others, to respond accordingly. Often, being skinny is associated with being successful and happy in modern culture, leading to more attention on one’s body, especially among girls. Peer pressure surrounding this value can also play into one’s development of an eating disorder.


However, it is clear that eating disorders, including anorexia, can be heavily influenced by genetics. Although it is not yet clear which genes increase one’s risk of developing an eating disorder, it is evident that traits tied to eating disorders are present in a family’s genetic structure and can be passed down from parents to children.


While anorexia may seem less dangerous than other serious genetically induced diseases, it has a host of harmful effects and can be life threatening. These symptoms include extreme weight loss, abnormal blood counts, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness or fainting, constipation or abdominal pain,irregular heart rhythms, low blood pressure, dehydration, eroded teeth and calluses on the knuckles, and more serious complications (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anorexia-nervosa/symptoms-causes/syc-20353591).


Anorexia can be detected by medical professionals by monitoring the above symptoms, but it can be much trickier to spot it in a family member or friend. Some warning signs include excessive dieting or exercise, abnormal behavior around meal time, such as frequent bathroom trips or refusal to eat in front of others, increased depression, anxiety, or fatigue, as well as other personal changes (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/7-signs-your-friend-or-loved-one-might-be-struggling-eating-disorder).


If you think a loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder, helping them may seem difficult, but there are effective ways to help without crossing a line. When talking to someone about their health, be sure to set a time privately, use “I” statements, remove stigma by reminding them there is no shame in struggling with an eating disorder, avoid simplistic answers, and encourage them to speak with a medical professional. Be prepared for a negative response, which is normal for many people struggling, but do not be afraid to tell someone else about your concerns. Catching an eating disorder or body image issues early can help ease recovery greatly (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/help/caregivers).


The road to recovery can be long and hard, but once you take the step towards health, there will be plenty of people to support you. Usually, treatment is administered by a team of doctors working together. There is no medication to help recover from anorexia, but often therapy and the use of a dietitian are helpful to the process. In recovering from any significant health occurrence, there is no perfect path. Doing your best to heal or support a loved one is more than enough to ease the path towards health and happiness.


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