Society's fondness for thinness everywhere

October 16, 1997

Society's fondness for thinness everywhere

Messages feed eating disorders

By Teri Johnson

Staff Writer

It's hard to pass a magazine rack or flip through the channels on television without a reed-slim model staring you in the face.

The social emphasis on thinness is one factor that leads to eating disorders, says Dr. Harry Brandt, director of The Center for Eating Disorders at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Md.


The late Princess Diana's admission that she suffered from bulimia nervosa was a comfort to many with eating disorders, says Brandt, who also heads the psychiatry department at St. Joseph Medical Center.

That was evident on the center's Web site, where people posted messages about her.

"People felt very connected to Diana and her important role," Brandt says.

When someone in the public eye admits she is struggling, it destigmatizes the illness so others can come forward, Brandt says.

Eating disorders can strike patients of all ages, says Dr. Philip Herschelman, medical director of the eating disorders program at Brook Lane Psychiatric Center in Hagerstown.

The majority of those treated at Brook Lane are in their teens, 20s and 30s, Herschelman says.

"We've also seen some 6- and 7-year-olds," he says.

While eating disorders primarily affect women, more men are beginning to develop them, he says.

These behavioral and mental disorders feature prominent alterations in eating behavior.

The three types of disorders are anorexia nervosa, or starving oneself to a low weight; bulimia nervosa, in which the patient binges on tremendous amounts of food, then counteracts by regurgitating it; and binge eating disorder, similar to bulimia except the person does not purge the food afterwards.

Anorexic persons refuse to maintain a normal body weight and perceive themselves as fat, Brandt says. High school and college-age women are the main groups at risk, he says.

Bulimia occurs most often in college-age women. An estimated 10,000 cases per year are identified in the United States, Brandt says.

Persons with binge eating disorder can consume many thousands of calories in a single episode. The disorder is more prominent in people in their 30s and 40s, Brandt says.

Anorexics often deny the illness and don't acknowledge that they have a problem, so they avoid treatment, Brandt says.

About 50 percent of patients with anorexia also have symptoms of bulimia, Brandt says.

"These are very morbid illnesses with a high mortality rate," he says.

Fifteen to 25 percent of people who are severely anorexic eventually will die of the illness, Brandt says. Of those with bulimia, about 5 to 10 percent will succumb to the illness.

Most deadly

Of all the psychiatric illnesses, anorexia is the most deadly, he says.

"Starvation is such a potent stressor, and the body can only take so much abuse," he says.

The earlier you discover an eating disorder, the better chance there is of overcoming it, says Chris Zoller, leader of a Hagerstown support group that is part of National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

"The longer you keep it inside, the harder it is to get over," Zoller says.

Talking with others can be a relief, Zoller says.

"A problem can seem really large in your own room, but when you talk to someone else, it seems a little smaller," she says.

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