Anorexia: A Growing Problem

Anorexia: A Growing Problem

February 28, 2008--From eating too much, to eating too little:  it is clear Americans have an unhealthy relationship with food. Experts say, it doesn't matter anymore if you're old or young, a man or a woman-- anorexia is on the rise. During National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we take a look at an alarming trend.

Karla Walsh is the editor-in-chief of Ethos magazine, an Iowa State University publication. This winter, she was her own subject. "When people would say things to me like, 'Oh, I bet you're going to be 300 pounds by the time you're a senior in high school,' it's just like- I'll prove you wrong," says the ISU junior. She authored an article about her battle with anorexia that started sophomore year of high school. "Never had a real boyfriend. Never been on a date. Didn't have real strong friendships. And I put that all on the fact that I was overweight," she says. 

A simple diet escalated into an obsession. "I would look at the out-put on the cardio machines and sometimes I would get over 1,000 calories burned. It was a competition, to come back the next day and I bet I could do more," Walsh says. She ate next to nothing, and without even realizing it, the diet soon controlled her life. "The start of my sophomore year I was around 180 pounds. And then by October of my junior year, I had gotten down to 94 pounds," she says. 

When a doctor diagnosed her with anorexia, she refused to believe it. "I had a lot of trouble getting started at first. I would go to the dietician and I'd lie out my teeth about what I ate," she says. 

Walsh's story is far from unusual. In fact, it's becoming more common, and not just among young women. "We're seeing for the first time in history the number of men struggling with eating disorders increasing more rapidly than that of women. And so what we're seeing is this phenomenon where men are closing the gap as far as how many men are struggling with how many women are struggling," says Michelle Roling, an eating disorders expert at ISU. She says anorexia doesn't discriminate anymore, "We're seeing a tremendous increase in the age-range of people struggling with eating disorders. We're seeing young girls, as young as nine struggling with diagnosable eating disorders. We're also seeing the older population, middle-aged women, as well as women beyond menopause." 

The shame associated with anorexia prevents many victims from stepping forward, which means statistics are often unreliable, but more and more clinics across the country say, more and more middle-aged women are surfacing in support groups. "What we're seeing is some individuals maybe going into retirement, who are losing their professional identity. And so, they turn to thinking, 'I'm going to focus on my body. I'm going to get healthy,'" says Roling. 

Growing social pressure to be thin is a big reason behind the trend, and so is depression and anxiety. "We know eating disorders are not about food. We know they're about how people are feeling, and how they're trying to live their life and how to deal with whatever it is that's coming at them," Roling says. 

Admitting the need for help is a major step. Here in Iowa, there's another road block:  a lack of experts who can treat eating disorders. "We could use more therapists in central Iowa doing this work. Those of us who do work on eating disorders tend to refer patients back and forth because there are so few of us," says Roling. 

As for Karla Walsh, she considers herself recovered, but she still sees a therapist and still sets restrictions. "I still have things I'd rather not eat. I'm not going to go out and have KFC fried chicken or donuts, stuff like that," Walsh says. 

But she says, she is no longer completely focused on food. "Now I can pursue things that are actually important and worthwhile and help people," she says. For her, that means writing for a health and fitness magazine someday, and ideally, reversing the upward trend of eating disorders by having the guts to talk publicly about her own.

Experts say, because it's a taboo subject, family and friends often hold back if they think someone is struggling with an eating disorder. Roling says, it is important to express your concern in a sensitive way. Some warning signs include: avoiding social gatherings where any food is involved, exercising obsessively, and skipping meals.