Puberty and Growth - Anorexia nervosa

One of the most common eating disorders is anorexia nervosa, which occurs most often in teenage girls, but has also appeared recently in boys. Female anorexics, according to recent studies, are usually preoccupied with their appearance or body “image” as a result of social insecurities, peer pressure, and the influence of cultural stereotypes of beauty. Conversely, male anorexia has less to do with body image than with perceived health risks associated with eating certain foods, and fear of developing genetic illnesses, such as heart disease.

The most obvious trait is excessive and unnatural thinness. When anorexics become critically thin, they develop downy hair, called lanugo. Other symptoms include obsession with exercise and “healthy” eating habits, emphasis on self-control and discipline, high achievement in school, alternative periods of strict fasting and binging, and rituals surrounding food preparation and eating.

Studies show that fewer than two-thirds of the children and young adolescents who have anorexia make a sustained recovery from the disorder. Recovery is crucial; anorexia nervosa may cause dehydration, irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, poor bone development (which increases the risk for osteoporosis), and, most seriously, permanent brain damage.

Treatment of anorexia nervosa involves long-term individual and family psychiatric counseling, and in extreme cases, hospitalization to ensure weight gain. Anorexics frequently suffer from amenorrhea-cessation or delay of menstruation. Amenorrhea can have serious physical consequences.


When binges become “gorge and purge” sessions—stretches of overeating followed by self-induced vomiting—the condition is called bulimia. Purging can involve vomiting, using laxatives, or taking diuretics. Bulimia may exist in conjunction with anorexia nervosa or it may afflict people who are of normal size or are slightly overweight. Like anorexics, most bulimics are female, who perceive themselves as larger and fatter than they really are. Studies have shown that 11 percent of high school females and 10 percent of female college students suffer from anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia.

Much of the problem stems from a poor self-image, some social insecurities, and a lack of self-control. Treatment involves psychiatric counseling. Physical damages may include a ruptured esophagus, dental caries, and hypoglycemia. For more information, contact the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Box 7, Highland Park, IL 60035.

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