What is an eating disorder?

Monday Medical

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Family health program

What: A free Taking Care of Me family health program, "Recent Advances in the Treatment of Eating Disorders." The speaker is Ken Weiner, MD, founder and medical director of the Eating Disorder Center of Denver.

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7.

Where: Yampa Valley Medical Center, Conference Room 1.

With our society's preoccupation about weight and dieting, it is sometimes difficult to decide if someone really has an eating disorder.

In the United States, 50 percent of fourth-grade girls have reported dieting. This figure rises to 89 percent by age 17. When pressure to be thin starts at such an early age, it is not surprising that 15 percent of young women have disordered eating.

Disordered eating can lead to weight changes and nutritional problems. It also can cause severe medical conditions or emotional problems that interfere with friends, school, family or work.

Education and counseling can be helpful for individuals with disordered eating to help alleviate the dieting behaviors, obsessions about food and weight, and the negative self image which these individuals may have. However, when disordered eating develops into a full-blown eating disorder, it requires immediate professional attention.

An eating disorder is a serious illness in which there is a severe disturbance in eating behavior. There are three major types of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by extreme weight loss, body image disturbance and an intense fear of becoming fat. Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by binge-eating episodes followed by self-induced vomiting, fasting, excessive exercising or the misuse of laxatives or diuretics. Binge eating disorder involves recurrent episodes of binge eating but without the purging behaviors seen in Bulimia Nervosa.

While most prevalent in young women, eating disorders can occur in children and older women. Boys and young men also develop eating disorders and an increasing number of cases are being reported.

The death rate for young women with eating disorders is about 12 times higher than for other women of similar ages. The death rates in Anorexia Nervosa alone are among the highest recorded for all psychiatric disorders. Many of these deaths are related to malnutrition, sudden heart attack or suicide.

Eating disorders are complex illnesses which result from various combinations of psychological, social and biological issues. An individual who is vulnerable to developing an eating disorder may start with a diet simply to improve self esteem, or to change their weight or body shape.

Positive feedback from others may initially reinforce the weight loss. As dieting progresses, however, malnutrition and changes in brain chemistry occur. The individual may become increasingly obsessed with body shape and weight and less able to eat normally. For the person who develops an eating disorder, this can be the beginning of a downward spiral.

The most recent research findings in the field of eating disorders indicate that biological factors play a role in the development of these illnesses. Studies have suggested that individuals with eating disorders have certain neurochemical abnormalities in their brains.

There is also a high incidence of co-occurring depression in individuals with eating disorders. There appears to be an increased frequency of eating disorders in biological siblings, parents and children of patients with eating disorders, suggesting a possible genetic basis to the illnesses.

Although dangerous and often difficult to treat, there is hope and help for eating disorders. Early intervention is the key. Whether with therapy, medication or a combination of both, eating disorders can be successfully treated. Relapses can occur but the sooner treatment begins, the better the chances are for recovery and a return to a healthier life.

Tamara Pryor, PhD, is a psychologist at the Eating Disorder Center of Denver, located on the web at www.edcdenver.com.

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