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Quest for Thinness

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You wanted to look like the model in the magazine or be as slim as your favourite actress on TV, so you started dieting. Then dieting became an obsession.

You wanted to look like the model in the magazine or be as slim as your favourite actress on TV, so you started dieting. Then dieting became an obsession. Now, all you think about is food, yet you don't eat; or you do eat, but then throw up out of fear you'll get fat.

According to the American Psychiatric Association Work Group on Eating Disorders, about eight percent of women suffer from either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. The majority of these women are adolescents. The National Institute of Mental Health states that 90 percent of eating disorder cases are in adolescents and young women. In a society where having the perfect body symbolizes success, self-control, and acceptance, almost everyone quests for thinness.

It now appears that our impressionable children and teens are in hot pursuit of this "ideal" form. Researchers in Toronto analyzed data from surveys of southern Ontario schoolgirls between 1993 and 2003 and found that eating disorders are increasing in younger age groups. Nearly 32 percent of 10-year-old girls in the survey felt "too fat" and 31 percent were trying to diet. At critical periods of growth and development, more and more kids are choosing to avoid food altogether in fear of gaining weight.

Consider another alarming fact: The average height and weight of a North American woman is 5' 4"and 142 pounds. The average height and weight of a North American model is 5' 9" and 110 pounds. Only one in 10,000 girls and women meet model dimensions without dieting.

What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are classified into three categories.

Anorexia nervosa is estimated to occur in 0.5 to 3.7 percent of females at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is a condition characterized by extreme weight loss due to severe food restriction. People with anorexia see themselves as fat even when they weigh very little. Those who suffer from anorexia feel the need to be in control. They control the amount of food eaten as a source of control for other aspects of their life.

Bulimia nervosa is a condition characterized by secretive food binges followed by purging to get rid of unwanted calories. Purging can be done using laxatives, vomiting, compulsive exercise, or fasting. The US National Eating Disorders Organization states that bulimia nervosa affects one to two percent of adolescent and young adult women.

Binge-eating disorder, also called compulsive overeating, is characterized by continuous eating or extended binges. This usually occurs when people eat to feed their emotions and often have feelings of guilt and low self-esteem for not being able to control their eating. According to the US National Eating Disorders Organization, the incidence of binge-eating disorder is one to five percent of the general population.

A Matter of Control

No one variable causes an eating disorder. Certain personality characteristics such as low self-esteem, poor self-concept, and perfectionism can play a role in the development of an eating disorder. As well, some researchers theorize that eating disorders could partly be due to genetics. One study by doctors at the Maudsley Hospital in London suggested that people with anorexia were twice as likely to have variations in the gene for serotonin receptors, which help to regulate appetite. Due to an overproduction of serotonin, researchers theorize that those with anorexia are in a constant state of stress, resulting in a continual sense of anxiety. They reduce their intake to starvation levels in order to feel calm and regain a sense of control.

Our children's environment, including social, cultural, and media influences, can also perpetuate the development of an eating disorder. Whether it's through magazines, television, or a parent's obsession with their own weight, kids get the message that ultra-thin is in. In fact, the fear of being fat is so overwhelming that young girls have indicated in surveys that they are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing their parents. Then, when young men and women see their body change during puberty, the lack of ability to control their own body shape can lead to frustration and despair, ultimately increasing the risk of an eating disorder.

Take it Seriously

Eating disorders are a serious health condition that can be both physically and psychologically devastating. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that one in 10 cases end in death from starvation, suicide, or medical complication such as heart attack or kidney failure.

Fortunately, successful treatment of an eating disorder is possible and the sooner treatment starts, whether inpatient or outpatient, the better the outcomes are likely to be.

The quest for thinness does not bring happiness or health. Quest for love, self-acceptance, and feeling good about yourself no matter what size or shape.

Nutritional Therapy

Zinc
Regulates appetite, taste, and smell
25 mg daily

Magnesium
Reduces stress
250 to 300 mg daily

St. John's Wort
Treats anxiety and depression
300 mg of 0.3 percent standardized extract three times a day

Source: Dr. Alexander Schauss and Carolyn Costin, Anorexia and Bulimia: A Nutritional Approach to the Deadly Eating Disorders (Keats Good Health Guides, 1997)

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