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Running on Empty: Eating Disorders

By John Francis

John Francis, 2001-2002 Fellow, is the founder and publisher of TEARAWAY Magazine, The Voice Of New Zealand Youth.

How many people can honestly say that when they look in the mirror they are happy with what they see every time?

Not many, if any (thanks Scribe). No one is 100 percent happy with their body all of the time, that's just part of life. But the question is - when does a little hang-up turn into a serious problem?

A personal battle

Heidi's mother had secretly battled with an eating disorder all her life, so right from when she was little, Heidi began to take an interest in calorie counting and would read the nutritional information of all the food she ate.

Just before her 13th birthday she started worrying about her weight on a more serious level. Other girls in her year were having growth spurts and getting thinner as a result.

"I remember someone making a comment once that if Barbie was a real woman she would be too thin to have proper periods. I was terrified of getting my period, so I guess something just triggered in my mind that If I got thin enough, I might not get it."

Counting calories

That week Heidi stopped eating sweet foods, and later turned down an invitation to a girl's night because she knew they would be ordering pizza.

"I started to refuse any invitation that involved eating with my friends. I forced myself to exercise for hours and hours a day, often doing hundreds of sit ups during the night. I spent my lunch hour at school sprinting and swimming rather than eating - no one seemed to notice."

Heidi refused to put more than 700 calories [that's about a bowl of spaghetti bolognese] into her body in a day, and kept reducing that amount further and further.

She prepared all her own meals at home, where she could monitor exactly how many grams of fat and how many carbohydrates were in every meal.

"If someone offered me food that I hadn't made myself I would sort of panic inside."

Naturally her weight started to drop - along with energy levels, the number of invitations to parties, and the number of phone calls from friends.

Somehow she didn't care.

"Watching my body get thinner and thinner left me so elated, I sacrificed everything to keep it up."

Running on empty

Eventually, Heidi became so exhausted that she couldn't even exercise, something that threw her into panic. She reduced her calorie intake even further to compensate for not being able to exercise, often resorting to vomiting after a snack.

Years passed and Heidi never got her period.

The feeling of sheer emptiness and lightheadedness became the only way she could relax.

"One morning as I was washing my hair in the shower I realised my hands were covered in hair that had fallen out. This scared me. The protrusion of my hip bones and ribs also scared me, but something in my head made me push on. I never felt attractive. I felt hideous.

"On days when it was cold. I would wear as many layers as I could, but would freeze."

One step forward, two steps back

In her final month of school Heidi's principal pulled her out of class and confronted her about the problem. Her parents were called in, and they forced her to see a GP.

"I didn't have the strength to care. I was defenseless. I began therapy - setting small goals for myself and trying to keep them. Eating 100 extra calories each meal for example. Years passed - one step forward, two steps back, one step forward."

Heidi's weight is now stable, and at a point that she is healthy and comfortable with. She has made friends again, and is finally starting to find out who she is without anorexia.

"I look back on a lot of painful and wasted years, and thank my lucky stars I was able to recover." -- Nicole Matthewson

What's an eating disorder?

You may have an eating disorder if you:

  • Are constantly thinking about eating or not eating
  • Feel out of control around food
  • Use food to meet needs other than hunger
  • Become obsessed about food, weight and body shape.

There are literally hundreds of different eating disorders, all with their own set of distressing, painful, frustrating and anxiety provoking emotions and behaviours. There are two very common kinds though.

Anorexia is:

  • Weight loss (the person severely restricts food intake and/or undertakes excessive exercise)
  • Intense fear of becoming fat
  • Distorted view of body shape (believing all or parts of the body are fat when they are not)
  • For females - loss of periods (or irregular periods or delayed first period).

Bulimia is:

  • Binge eating (eating a large amount of food in a short period of time, and not being in control of it) < and anorexia both of symptoms mix a is which disorder eating common third also There weight. shape body with Who's at risk?

    Anybody can develop an eating disorder, although there are certain groups who are at greater risk.
    • Females. About 90 percent of people with eating disorders are females, but there is an increasing number of guys becoming affected as well.

Unfortunately, the number of people who are identified as having a disorder is only a percentage of those who actually do.

Hundreds of cases go unnoticed and untreated.

And it's a fact that women are more likely to ask for help than boys.

  • Teenagers. Anorexia and bulimia usually begin in the teens, but can start at any age, and cases have even been recorded in children as young as six years old.
  • Family history. Eating disorders are an illness which is seen in all socio-economic groups and all types of families. However, there is an increased risk if a parent or sibling has had an eating disorder, mood disorder or alcohol or drug problem.
  • Nations and culture. Eating disorders are more common in industrialised societies where there is lots of food and a cultural ideal for women to be thin, but is becoming more common internationally.
  • Body shape ideals. Societies which place a high value on being thin often give out conflicting and confusing messages about the size, food, diets, health and roles people should have - and the conflicting messages can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
  • Other factors. Eating disorders are more common in young girls and women, women at university and individuals in sports or professions where there is a high value on being thin (eg. ballet, gymnastics, running, modelling).

They tend to be more common in people who are perfectionists (both physically and academically), have low self-esteem, don't like the way they look, have difficulty naming their emotions and have periods of depression.

People who have been sexually abused as children are also more at risk.

While not every person who diets has an eating disorder, nearly every eating disorder begins with some kind of attempt at weight loss.

Want to know more? Eating Disorder Services are based in Wellington, but their website has contacts for all of New Zealand, as well as information about eating disorders.

Or if you need to talk:
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)

Copyright 2005, Used with permission from TEARAWAY Magazine, Wanganui, New Zealand.

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