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Anorexia and Bulimia: Life-Threatening Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are psychological illnesses that lead you to eat too much or too little. Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening illnesses that requires immediate medical attention.

Although many recent studies document an alarming worldwide increase in obesity, particularly among young children, not everyone who is larger or heavier than the current American ideal has an eating disorder. Human bodies come in many different sizes, and some healthy people are just naturally larger or heavier than others.

An eating disorder may be present, though, when

  • A person continually confuses appetite for hunger.

  • A person who has access to a normal diet experiences psychological distress when denied food.

  • A person uses food to relieve anxiety provoked by a new job, a party, ordinary criticism, or a deadline.

Traditionally, doctors have found that treating obesity is difficult. However, recent research suggests that some people overeat in response to irregularities in the production of chemicals that regulate satiety. This research may open the path to new kinds of drugs that can control extreme appetite, thus reducing the incidence of obesity-related disorders such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Some people relieve their anxiety not by eating but by refusing to eat or by regurgitating food after they’ve eaten it. The first kind of behavior is called anorexia nervosa; the second, bulimia.

Many doctors suggest that anorexia nervosa may be an attempt to control one’s life by rejecting a developing body. By starving themselves, anorexic girls avoid developing breasts and hips, and anorexic boys avoid developing the broad wedge-shape adult male body. Left untreated, anorexia nervosa can end in death by starvation.

Unlike people with anorexia, individuals with bulimia often consume enormous amounts of food in one sitting: a whole chicken, several pints of ice cream, a whole loaf of bread.

But bulimic people don’t keep the food they eat in their bodies. The most common method they use for getting rid of food is regurgitation. The human body is not designed for repeated stuffing followed by regurgitation.

Bingeing may dilate the stomach to the point of rupture; constant vomiting may severely irritate or even tear through the lining of the esophagus (throat). Using large quantities of emetics (an agent that prompts vomiting) may result in a life-threatening loss of potassium that triggers irregular heartbeat or heart failure.

Anorexia nervosa (voluntary starvation) is virtually unknown in places where food is hard to come by. It seems to be an affliction of affluence, most likely to strike the young and well-to-do. It’s nine times more common among women than among men.

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