the Dark Side of Eating

Last night I watched with interest a media insight into the world of eating disorders. Paula Zahn of CNN took an hour-long look at different types of eating disorders in men, women, and children in a segment entitled "Walking the Thin Line."

The story featured discussions with celebrities Jane Fonda and Jamie-Lynn DiScala about their personal battles with bulimia and how it affected not only their careers but every aspect of their lives. Jockey Shane Sellers provided a male perspective as he talked about what he called the "dark side of racing:" days without food, constant "flipping" or purging massive quantities of food, and hours in a sauna to sweat out pounds of fluid. The most dramatic account of all, and the most difficult one for me to watch, was that of a young girl who developed anorexia when she was just five years old.

Although the CNN segment did not highlight treatment options or early warning signs for eating disorders, it did focus on raising awareness: An eating disorder is a disease that does not discriminate. These disorders affect men, women, and children of all ages and from all walks of life.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, more than 10 million women and more than 1 million men are dealing with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Many more do not have a diagnosable eating disorder but suffer from problematic patterns of eating and avoiding food, sometimes referred to as "disordered eating." Some groups, such as athletes, models, and food professionals, are more likely to develop an eating disorder because of their focus on food or weight.

But these are complex disorders and there are usually many other contributing factors to the disease. We know there are links to low self-esteem, depression, challenging relationships, and feelings that one lacks control over one's life, in addition to a strong correlation between eating disorders and some athletic pursuits. Eating disorders are considered psychiatric disorders, but the many nutritional and medical problems associated with them require the expertise of a multidisciplinary treatment team that includes mental health, medical, nutrition and nursing professionals.

My take-home message from the CNN program is that although eating disorders can have life-threatening effects, with proper help individuals can live normal and productive lives. Overcoming an eating disorder requires professional help, and there are many excellent resources available for individuals who have or think they may have an eating disorder. One is the Web site of the National Eating Disorders Association at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.