Eating disorders a serious problem

HOUGHTON – Barbie isn’t real, but unfortunately the perception of the body image she portrays has created a very real, potentially life-threatening problem: eating disorders.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a “clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life,” including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).

“Eating disorders are real, complex and devastating conditions that can have serious consequences for health, productivity and relationships,” according to the NEDA. “They are not a fad, phase or lifestyle choice.”

Eating disorders can be caused by many factors, from depression, to low self-esteem, to false body images portrayed in the media and advertising. According to the NEDA, 40-60 percent of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat, and the concern carries on throughout life.

Teenage years can be particularly difficult, and there has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women ages 15-19 in each decade since 1930. Just from 1988 to 1993, the incidence of bulimia tripled in women 10-39 years old. Overall, the rate of development of new cases of eating disorders has been increasing since 1950.

Seeking professional help for eating disorders is important, and there is hope for overcoming the disorders, but treatment tends to be challenging for several reasons.

“Treating it is definitely difficult. The success rate of treating it is very low,” said Caitlin Bowers, an intern at North Coast Counseling Services, LLC, in Hancock who is working on her master’s degree in clinical social work. “The best way to treat it is to treat what causes it – if a person has low self-esteem, addressing that underlying issue.

“Personally, in my opinion, it is more difficult than treating depression, even compulsive (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) behaviors. … There’s a lot of co-occuring stuff.”

Alcohol and other substance abuse disorders are four times more common than in the general population, according to the NEDA, for example. Yet, despite the complications caused by combining disorders, funding for eating disorder research pales in comparison with other diseases.

Research dollars spent on Alzheimer’s Disease averaged $88 per affected individual in 2011, according to the National Institutes of Health, $81 for schizophrenia, $44 for autism – but just $0.93 for eating disorders.

The cost of not treating it is too high, though, as 50 years of research has confirmed that anorexia nervosa (self-starvation and excessive weight loss) has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, according to the NEDA. The body is forced to slow down because it is denied essential nutrients, and risk of heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink.

The binge-and-purge cycles of bulimia nervosa (self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse or obsessive exercise) can create electrolyte and chemical imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure. Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus are possible from the frequent vomiting.

Binge eating disorders can result in many of the same risks associated with clinical obesity, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Professional counseling and therapy is the best treatment, but getting to that point can depend on family and friends to intervene.

“They should help out very, very gently,” Bowers said. “Just letting them know that you’re there for them, helping them finding resources or support groups. The best bet would be to get them to see a counselor, therapist or support group.”

Prevention is critical as well, teaching kids from a young age about healthy eating, healthy exercise and healthy body image.

Local organizations who can help provide treatment for eating disorders include North Coast Counseling Services, LLC (, Kathryn Salmi Christian Counseling ( and Copper Country Mental Health Services (

For more information about eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website at, and for an online community with success stories of overcoming eating disorders and additional resources, visit