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Dying to Be Thin: Unhealthy Influences on Body Image Lead to Eating Disorders

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According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 10 million females and 1 million males suffer from an eating disorder. Individuals receive direct and indirect messages about body image throughout their lives from family, friends and the media. This has an unhealthy influence on an individual’s belief systems regarding food and eating. Some individuals develop eating disorders or dependency on drugs or weight control supplements, such as fat burners, to stay thin. Individuals may seek treatment for eating disorders and addiction at dual diagnosis treatment centers.

Influences on Body Image

  • Television, models, advertising and other forms of media have given society a certain idea of what pretty “should” look like. As a result, the community is obsessed with staying fit, being within a certain range of Body Mass Indices (BMIs) and eating healthy to avoid being labeled what society views as unhealthy.
  • Parents’ words are the main influence on children’s developing belief systems about self-esteem, self-confidence and body image. They can either instill a healthy or poor self-image, either intentionally or unintentionally. For example, a parent may call his or her son, “you little fatty,” meant as a term of endearment. Unfortunately, this is a critical statement that can have a negative impact on the psyche of a child and follow him into adulthood.
  • Learned behaviors from observing parents, family and friends can cause an individual to be preoccupied with weight. For example, a parent may be obsessed with controlling food intake amounts or constantly stepping on the scale.  This teaches a child to be hypersensitive to eating and weight gain, which carries on through the different stages of his or her life.
  • Issues of control also contribute to eating disorders. When an individual has experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or neglect, he or she has been in an unhealthy power relationship. This produces issues of control because the individual is not in control of any of these forced situations. Controlling food intake is a way the individual can feel in control of something.

Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders develop over time and are a combination of unhealthy belief systems and addiction issues related to the behavior. The National Eating Disorder Association reports that Americans spend 40 billion dollars on dieting and dieting products each year. Excessively curbing food intake is a sign of possible eating issues. As a society, we encourage people to develop a fear of becoming fat or gaining any weight at all. Habits that some people develop to stay thin are:

  • Skipping Meals
  • Fasting
  • Smoking Cigarettes
  • Vomiting
  • Taking Laxatives
  • Taking Stimulants

Distorted body image stems from irrational fears related to body image beliefs. This pattern of thinking becomes pathological when it begins to interfere with daily activities, deteriorating physical health and/or present addiction issues.

Here are basic overviews of the two most prevalent eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
    • Restricting food intake or no food intake
    • Refusal to maintain healthy body weight
    • Continuing to believe that one is overweight despite being underweight
    • Cease of menstruation
    • Bingeing may be evident but is not the prominent feature
  • Bulimia Nervosa
    • Bingeing followed by purging
    • Ability to eat abnormally large quantities in a short period of time
    • A sense of lack of control when eating
    • Overuse or misuse of laxatives, stimulants or exercise to lose weight or prevent weight gain.

Eating disorders are a form of addiction and have a cycle of abuse that perpetuates negative thoughts, negative body image, guilt, and shame. There are many underlying psychological factors present with eating disorders. It is helpful for addictive behavior to be addressed when treating an eating disorder so that an individual can learn new coping skills. New coping skills avoid exacerbating an eating disorder while an individual resolves underlying issues.

Treatment for Eating Disorders

Some individuals who suffer from eating disorders also become dependent on chemical agents and stimulant medications to help them lose weight and suppress appetite.

Side effects of stimulant abuse include:

  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts and behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia

Side effects of laxative abuse are:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Respiratory difficulty
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Skin itching or rash
  • Gastrointestinal blockage
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Irritability
  • Unusual tiredness

Having an eating addiction or dependency on supplements may require inpatient addiction treatment. The physical health of someone who suffers from an eating disorder is already in jeopardy and the detox process should be conducted under medical supervision to ensure no further damage. Attending addiction treatment can provide an individual with therapy so he or she can reframe negative thoughts about body image, learn healthy eating habits and develop a relapse prevention plan to avoid falling back into unhealthy eating patterns and stimulant abuse.

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