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How prevalent are eating disorders?

by Heather Strong, MS, and John Byl, PhD

In the United States, conservative estimates suggest that as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are truggling with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, and as many as 25 million more people are struggling with binge eating disorder (Hoek & vanHoeken, 2003; Shisslak, Crago, & Estes, 1995). Although women are at higher risk for developing body image concerns and eating disorders, research has demonstrated that men are slowly becoming more and more at risk (Furnham & Calnan, 1998; Neumark-Sztainer et al., 1999).

Eating disorders affect both men and women, but they typically are expressed in very different ways. For example, women (like Heather) often strive to be thinner than they are, whereas men (like Tom) often want to be bigger, or at least more muscular and lean. But the most alarming statistic about eating disorders is that "according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in ten anorexia cases ends in death from starvation, suicide, or medical complications like heart attack or kidney failure" (American Psychological Association, 2004).

Eating disorders typically develop during adolescence; the typical age of onset is between 13 and 18 years (Robert-McComb, 2001). On average, adolescents begin developing eating disorders at around age 17, which is usually their last year in high school or first year at a college or university.

Each year eating disorders increase on college campuses across North America. Many students are excited about leaving home, gaining independence, and pursuing their goals. However, students who feel the responsibility placed on them is too great may turn to inappropriate methods to hide or control their feelings of inadequacy or fear. It is often in these situations that college students develop eating disorders to help them cope with their new feelings. An article about college students and eating disorders reported the following:

When the pressures get to be too much, some [college students] may turn to anorexia as a way to block out what is happening. If they spend all of their time focusing on calories and their weight, they don’t have time to think about anything else. Others might believe that the only way they will be accepted is if they are thin. If someone is having trouble in their courses and not getting the marks they wanted or expected to, they might also develop anorexia. As the scale goes down they start to believe that losing weight is the one thing they can succeed at and it makes them feel like they are accomplishing something. Others may turn to bulimia or compulsive eating as a way to deal with the pressures and all of the emotions they are experiencing. If they are feeling lonely, sad, tired, overwhelmed, depressed, scared, or confused, food can bring them a false sense of security and can also comfort them. When they binge, all their negative feelings disappear. When the bulimics purge, whether by vomiting or by compulsive exercising, it may help them to feel like they are releasing all of those feelings. Because food can only temporarily help deal with negative feelings, the binge-purge cycle will continue. (Thompson, 2000)

You might think that Christians are not affected by eating disorders. Research has indicated that assumption is false. A study by Cook and Reiley (1991) examined the prevalence of eating concerns among four college campuses for both women and men. Two campuses held an explicitly Christian world view and two campuses were nonsectarian. The results of the study suggested that eating concerns were more prevalent among women than among men and that there were no significant differences in eating concerns between the campuses with a Christian world view and the nonsectarian campuses.

Furthermore, the study reported that women on all four college campuses experienced significant eating and dieting concerns consistent with eating disordered behaviors, such as an intense fear of fat, persistent dieting, tendencies to overeat, abuse of laxatives, and purging. In the study, 52 percent of the women and 40 percent of the men identified themselves as overweight.

The study concluded that eating concerns are not exclusively a non-Christian or nonsectarian issue. The results from this study imply that eating concerns and eating disorders are prevalent on different kinds of college campuses, eventhose that espouse a Christian world view.

This is an excerpt from Christian Paths to Health and Wellness.

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