Tuesday, December 22, 2009

10 to 15 percent of women face potential eating disorders

A study of some 1,500 women by the University of Montreal in Canada has begun to quantify a potentially alarming epidemic of dysfunctional eating. None of the women could be characterized as being anorexic, the classic eating disorder where women essentially starve themselves to conform to unrealistic body images. The average age was 31, most were university graduates, non-smokers and generally characterized as normal weight. Nearly 14% of study participants reported binge eating one to five days or one to seven times per month; 2.5 % forced themselves to vomit, or used laxatives or diuretics to maintain their weight or shape; and 28% participated in intense exercise twice a month for the sole purpose of losing weight or changing their figure. Women who self-reported their health as being poor were more likely to exhibit this behavior. Overall, the authors estimate that 10 to 15% of women are practicing behaviors consistent with disordered eating.

Awareness of one’s health and diet, and routine exercise to maintain good health are of course important. And losing weight if you are clearly overweight or obese is also wise. But this study once again sheds light on the issue of bulimia, or binge eating followed by vomiting. This behavior is tied in with a sense of needing to control one’s life, as well as ones eating habits. The authors also address an additional compounding factor: Cultural norms teaching women to enjoy eating are colliding with continued pressures to be unrealistically thin. The result can be an exacerbation of the love-hate relationship with food and obsession with weight and body image.

It is also noteworthy that growing knowledge about health and medicine among the general population may be contributing to unhealthy obsessions with health and diet. We obviously need to stop promoting unrealistic and unhealthy body types. But we should also stop selling fad diets, cure-all potions, medications for lifestyle conditions, and weird exercise contraptions that claim to firm your aging physique “in only seconds a day.” Knowing how to stay healthy is important. But obsessing about every imperfection or the need for perfect health, diet or exercise routine is dangerous and unhealthy.

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