A seventeen-year old girl who wanted desperately to get into shape before her upcoming farewell party in school. She practically starved herself, surviving only on fresh fruit and lime juice, and exercised vigorously for three long months. Eventually she managed to lose a visible 12 kg, and there was no end to the compliments she got at the party. Only when she passed out in the school corridor almost four months after the farewell, did her parents and friends realise she had secretly kept up her strict diet plan for way too long.
She was diagnosed and later treated for anorexia – an eating disorder that is characterised by extreme loss of appetite for food and an obsessive fear of weight gain. This is a case study of a patient who came to me for help 10 years back. These cases were few and far between then.
But today this is not an uncommon story any more. Cases of anorexia have increased exponentially lately.
What is Anorexia Nervosa?
With anorexia what starts as an ordinary intention of a slimmer body soon becomes an obsession to pursue the impossible because people with this disorder continue to think they’re fat even when they are bone-thin.
In fact, denial and preoccupation with food and weight are the two most important signs of trouble.
The problem here is that many life-threatening issues – both emotional and physical – can arise if anorexia becomes an entrenched life pattern. The sooner this eating disorder is recognized and treated, the easier it is for the person to recover, and the later it gets, the longer the person will have to struggle before he/she can turn matters around. And in some cases this could mean a whole lifetime.
How Anorexia Affects One’s Health
In the cycle of self-starvation, the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally. Thus, the body is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy that results in serious medical consequences – in prolonged cases, even death. Common symptoms are:
- Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which means that the heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower
- Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones
- Muscle loss and weakness
- Changes in or loss of menstrual cycle
- Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure
- Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness
- Dry hair and skin
- Growth of a downy layer of hair called lanugo all over the body, including the face, in an effort to keep the body warm
- Memory loss and lack of concentration
The Warning Signs of Anorexia
Detecting anorexia can be hard because what seems like a healthy desire to experiment may actually be something very seriously abnormal. Also, anorexics usually try every way possible to hide the problem for fear of being forced into eating normally and putting on weight.
Some of the common tell tale signs are:
- Skipping meals, eating only tiny portions, avoiding eating in front of other people, eating in a ritualistic way, and mixing strange food combinations
- Always having an excuse not to eat – am not hungry, just ate with a friend, am feeling ill, am upset, etc
- Feeling “disgusted” with former favourite foods like fried treats and desserts
- Eat only a few “safe” foods and boasting about how healthy your meals are
- Becoming a vegetarian but not eating the necessary fats, oils, whole grains, and the denser fruits and vegetables like potatoes and bananas
- Increasing know-how on diets and diet food and drastically reducing or completely eliminating fat intake
- Experimenting with laxatives, diet pills, or “natural” products from health food stores that claim to promote weight loss
- Continuing dieting even after losing more than 20% of ideal body weight
- Having frantic fears about putting on weight, spend lots of time inspecting yourself in the mirror and usually find something to criticise
- Wearing baggy clothes, sometimes in layers, to hide fat, hide emaciation, and stay warm
- Feeling bad about themselves after eating a good meal and becoming depressed and irritable
How to Tackle It Right
The key to recovery is professional help so that the cycle is intervened, faulty beliefs and perceptions are addressed, and a more accurate, generous view of the self is developed.
If you suspect you might be anorexic, or someone you know is one, the sooner you accept it and took help, the sooner it will be treated – and the easier it will be for you or that person to recover. Take help from a counsellor, doctor, nutritionist or any other health professional who can help. This cannot be handled on your own.
(The author is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don't Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico) and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa).