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Eating Disorders: 
What we all need to know

Mar 23, 2015 11:24AM ● By Cate Reynolds
In 1983, 32-year-old singer Karen Carpenter died—of heart failure caused by complications related to anorexia nervosa. It was the first time many people had ever heard of the condition.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anorexia nervosa is as a serious and potentially life-threatening mental illness and defined by an inability to maintain one’s body weight within 15 percent of their Ideal Body Weight. NAMI continues: “Other essential features of this disorder include an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted image of one’s body, denial of the seriousness of the illness, and, in females, amenorrhea, an absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles when they are otherwise expected to occur.”

In all those years since Karen’s death, treatment programs have been created—and have had some success—but new cases continue to appear. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) shares some interesting, and often disturbing, statistics with us.

  • Up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating) in the U.S.
  • Only one in 10 men and women with eating disorders receive treatment and only 35 percent of those getting treatment receive it at a specialized facility.
  • 95 percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.8 years.
  • However, by 2003 one-third of inpatient admissions to a specialized treatment center for eating disorders were over the age of 30.
  • An estimated 10 to 15 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia are male.
  • Men are less likely to seek treatment for eating disorders because of the perception that they are a “woman’s disease.”
  • More than one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. (It’s not about health, it’s about size.)
  • Co-existing issues: women with eating disorders are five times more likely to abuse alcohol/drugs. Almost 50 percent of people with eating disorders meet the criteria for depression.
  • 35 percent of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting.
  • 95 percent of all dieters will regain their lost weight within five years.
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Societal and cultural pressures play a major role in the eating disorder equation. The body type portrayed in American advertising as the ideal, the ANAD tells us, is possessed naturally by only five percent of American women. What a burden to carry for people who come in all sizes and shapes.

If any of these facts hit home for you or for someone you know, help and therapy are available. Back in the early eighties, Karen Carpenter was tormented by personal demons: She wanted to be prettier, somehow more lovable. It seems that having a one-in-a-billion singing voice just wasn’t enough. —S.H.