Thin red line

With over $40 billion being spent on dieting and diet-related products in America each year, the consensus seems to be the slimmer, the better. But what happens when losing weight goes too far?

Studies done on pre-adolescent girls show that 42 percent of first- through third-grade girls want to be thinner, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 51 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.

These alarming statistics come from the National Eating Disorder Association, which is promoting National Eating Disorder Awareness Week this week at USF.

NEDA, the largest non-profit organization committed to the elimination of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, hopes to attract public attention to the seriousness of eating disorders and to reduce the stigma that comes with the illness by educating the public. The organization hopes that awareness will steer people struggling with disorders toward treatment.

As many as 10 million females and one million males are fighting a life-or-death battle with eating disorders in the United States alone, according to . It is assumed that 25 million more are struggling with a binge-eating disorder, also known as compulsive overeating — consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time without purging afterwards. This disorder is associated primarily with clinical obesity.

The numbers could be much larger, however, considering that many who struggle with these disorders are ashamed and struggle in silence.

“It’s something not to ignore,” said Tonya Brown, a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association. “Eating disorders are not a choice. They are an illness. They affect a lot more people than the public realizes.”

The most common eating disorder is anorexia nervosa, characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. People struggling with anorexia may deny hunger, demonstrate a preoccupation with food, weight and dieting, give frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight despite weight loss and develop food rituals such as eating foods in certain orders, excessive chewing and rearranging food on a plate.

The physical effects of anorexia can be severe and life threatening. The disease has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Other effects of anorexia are an abnormal heart rate, low blood pressure, reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), muscle loss and weakness, hair loss, fainting, fatigue and severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure. In extreme cases, a downy layer of hair called lanugo may grow all over the body, including the face, in an effort to keep the body warm, NEDA’s Web site states.

Another common eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, symptoms of which include binge eating and purging through self-induced vomiting or excessive use of laxatives and diuretics in order to undo the effects of overeating. People who struggle with bulimia may have an excessive, rigid exercise regiment, unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area, calluses on the back of the hands and knuckles from self-induced vomiting, discoloration or staining of the teeth and withdrawal from usual friends and activities.

According to NEDA, purging can cause dehydration and loss of potassium and sodium, which leads to health electrolyte imbalances. These imbalances may create irregular heartbeats and eventually heart failure.

Inflammation and rupture of the esophagus and tooth decay from stomach acids can also result from frequent vomiting.

People who struggle with eating disorders aren’t only preoccupied with their weight. Factors that contribute to eating disorder may include psychological factors, such as low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy and lack of control in life, depression, anxiety or loneliness.

Other causes may include interpersonal factors, such as a history of mental or physical abuse, trouble in personal relationships or even difficulty expressing emotions and feelings.

Societal factors may also play a role in the development of eating disorders.

Media images glorify thinness and physical beauty. Our culture places value on attaining the “perfect body,” which is narrowly represented by both men and women in the media as being of a specific weight, body type and shape.

In fact, a study done by NEDA in 2003 found a correlation between female images in the media and prevalence of eating disorders among young women.

“This study shows that viewing thin images has a negative effect while viewing plus-size images has a demonstrably positive effect on young women,” said Claire V. Wiseman, assistant professor of psychology at Trinity College, on . “Based on this research and given the scarcity of plus-size models in magazines and television shows targeting the adolescent audience, we can conclude that the media may inadvertently increase the risk of pathological dieting and eating disorders among adolescent females.”

The thin images consist of the average American model, who is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds. This is an extreme misrepresentation of the average American woman, who is 5’4″ tall and weighs 140 pounds.

Other misleading information coming from the media has to do with the conflicting advertisements for different foods.

“We do provide people information to help them become critical viewers of the media because what they receive from the media … are messages that contradict each other, like ‘Lose weight but eat fast food,'” said Brown.

There have been numerous breakthroughs in treating eating disorders in recent years. In studying the genetic component of eating disorders, NEDA researchers have found specific chromosomes that are linked to the disorder.

Also, brain- imaging studies have found neurotransmitters in specific locations in the brain that correlate with eating disorders, which can give insight as to how these transmitters affect the course of the illness.

Throughout Awareness Week, the Student Health Services Health Education Department will have numerous promotions and presentations all over campus to inform and educate students on eating disorders and good health.


12-1 p.m. Jill Langer, clinical psychologist, will present “Love it, Don’t Lose it: How to Outsmart the Diet Industry” in the Counseling Center Conference Room, SVC 2126.


Eating Behavior Screenings: Brief, anonymous screenings with a professional counselor will be available 1:30-3 p.m. in the Counseling Center, SVC 2126 and 3-7 p.m. in the Psychological Services Center, PCD 1100.