The Skinny on Eating Disorders
First documented: 1694, by English physician Richard Morton
Characteristics: Anorexics have an intense fear of gaining weight, so they either don't eat enough food or eat almost nothing. As a result, they rapidly lose weight. Even then, anorexics are convinced they're overweight. Sometimes they hide food, cut food into tiny pieces, or obsessively count calories.
Who's at risk: Anorexia often starts between ages 13 and 20. More than 90 percent of anorexics are female; many are ballerinas, fashion models, and gymnasts. Recently the number of males with eating disorders is on the rise, particularly among dancers and some athletes.
How anorexia affects the body: As the body struggles with starvation, it protects itself by slowing down breathing and pulse rates, and lowering blood-pressure rates. In females, loss of the menstrual cycle is usually the first symptom. Anorexics' skin often becomes dry and turns yellow; their bones become brittle from lack of nutrients. With very little body fat, anorexics can't stand the cold. The body compensates by growing a fine coat of soft hair, called lanugo. People who don't eat enough food soon become deficient in potassium, an important mineral the body needs. Potassium deficiency leads to heart problems, and could lead to cardiac arrest.
Treatment: A hospital stay can help restore an anorexic's weight. Psychotherapy also helps address the psychological reasons behind eating disorders and depression that usually accompanies the condition.
First documented: 18th century in French literature. It wasn't until 1979, however, that bulimia became officially recognized as a disease.
Characteristics: Bulimics binge, or consume large amounts of food at one time, then try to rid themselves of what they ate by vomiting, overexercising, or abusing laxatives or diet pills. Like anorexics, bulimics have a distorted view of their own body shape and weight, but many maintain a normal body weight.
Who's at risk: Bulimia starts slightly later than anorexia, usually around 16 to 21 years old. About 2 to 3 percent of adolescent girls suffer from bulimia. As with anorexia, most bulimics are female.
How bulimia affects the body: Excessive vomiting often causes the stomach or esophagus (food tube) to rupture. Stomach acid brought up by vomiting can also wear down tooth enamel. Bulimics are at great risk of dehydration and electrolyte (dissolved salt particles) imbalances, which can lead to heart failure.
Treatment: Unlike anorexics, bulimics are usually more aware that something's wrong with their attitude toward food. As a result, they're more open to psychotherapy and medications.