Risky behavior

For those with eating disorders, dieting tips can become life-threatening behaviors

For those with eating disorders, dieting tips can become life-threatening behaviors

August 26, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Twice a year Sherry Mohar backs onto a scale.

This small step is required for the Hagerstown woman to move forward.

Taken for granted by many, the dial's reading is like a lit match dangling perilously close to a fuse for the 36-year-old customer service representative.

"It's probably best that I don't know," she says. "Because if I found out I weigh more than I think I might, it might be too easy to cut back."

The number in her mind may be 120; could be more, could be less. For Mohar, who has battled anorexia since she was 21, any curiosity about her weight is dwarfed by the fear of what might happen if she knows.


What's your weight? An innocuous, if private, question for some; for Sherry Mohar and millions like her the answer could be deadly.

Conservative figures from the National Eating Disorders Association estimate five to 10 million girls and women, plus an additional one million boys and men struggle with some variety of eating disorder - anorexia, bulimia, binge eating.

In an age where magazine racks and television sets are littered with images of thin women or perfectly chiseled men, images of the "ideal" body are hard to escape.

"Sometimes those things we do just to lose a few pounds can snowball and become risky behaviors," says NEDA information and referral supervisor Katie Brase. "We do know some of those dieting tips can become life-threatening behaviors if people get into the mindset of one more pound, five more pounds, and then they're in the mindset of an eating disorder."

Media saturation, coupled with easy access to diet products, is making it easier than ever for men and women, boys and girls to fanatically pursue idealized physiques.

No one cause

To isolate one cause, however, is shortsighted. Candace Rutherford, clinical manager for child and adolescent services for Summit Behavioral Health at Chambersburg (Pa.) Hospital, says the causes of eating disorders are as varied as the diet pills available.

Depression, anxiety, peer pressure and traumatic experiences can each trigger disorders. So it was with Mohar.

Before her miscarriage, she weighed 141 pounds. After, depression took hold and she couldn't eat.

"I was depressed and started to lose a little bit of weight," Mohar remembers. "OK, I could stand to lose 10 pounds or so."

As if a slimmer figure would make the hurt go away. It didn't. She continued to discard weight like snakes do skin, exercising more to speed the process.

The NEDA shies away from discussing hard data about an anorexic's problem. In their view, listing weight lost and the bare minimum calories an individual survives on creates a blueprint for others battling the affliction.

At her worst, Mohar was barely a whisper of a woman, 80 pounds of skin and bones who lived on apples, lettuce, pickles, diet soda and up to nine hours of exercise a day.

Up at 4 a.m. for weights and stomach exercises. Brisk walks during the day. More activity after quitting time at work.

"It was just total exertion until you were exhausted," she says. "Weight kept coming off and other people would notice but you wouldn't. ... You would look in the mirror and see a disillusioned image."

This is a common mindset, according to Joseph Jurand, a psychiatrist with Washington County Hospital. Physical consequences of eating disorders can be catastrophic.

Bulimics risk gastric ruptures during binges, or inflammation and rupture of the esophagus due to frequent vomiting. Binge eaters may develop conditions that mirror those of obesity, such as diabetes or gallbladder disease.

Anorexics deny the body nutrients needed to function properly. Kidney failure can develop; there can be an early onset of osteoporosis. Dry hair and skin, or hair loss, can occur. Mohar says the odds of her having children is slim to none thanks to what her body experienced.

Sufferers also feel shame at their condition. Mohar did, at times becoming a borderline shut-in to keep others away. A family intervention at one point led her to enter a 10-day treatment program, which helped for a month before she backslid worse than before.

As a result of the embarrassment associated with their disorder, many resist seeking help, which is why the number of people with eating disorders is so fluid.

"Some people are trying to manage and work off old traumas," Jurand says. "Some people can literally get addicted to the eating disorder. In other people it's an obsession."

Treatment, Rutherford says, can be tricky. There are those who say eating disorders should be treated as an addiction. Others feel if the emotional basis for anorexia, bulimia, etc. is treated, the disorder will go away.

Mohar is in the former group; Rutherford subscribes to the latter.

Seeds of future trouble

Most troubling to Rutherford is that the problem seems to be filtering to younger and younger children. She recalls walking through the cereal aisle of a grocery store and seeing a boy who couldn't be much older than six reading the dietary information on the box.

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