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Eating Disorders

What you need to know about this prevalent problem
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After our twins, Susy and Libby, finished their first semester at different colleges a few years ago, I asked them about the biggest challenge they'd faced as Christians on campus. To my surprise, it wasn't encountering the parties, casual sex, or agnostic professors. It was seeing the number of girls struggling with an eating disorder.

Could your daughter be dealing with this prevalent problem? Here's how to tell—and what measures to take.

What's the Definition?

Two types of eating disorders exist: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia is characterized by a weight loss of at least 15 percent below normal body weight, and the loss of a menstrual period for 3 consecutive months. The sufferer has a tremendous fear of gaining weight and an obsessive preoccupation with food and exercise. Dry skin, brittle nails, and constipation may occur. Another symptom may be lanugo (fine, downy hair growing on the body or face). Hair may thin and fall out, and an anorexic may be sensitive to cold, deny hunger, and refuse to eat.

Bulimia is characterized by two or more episodes of binge eating every week for at least three months. Binges sometimes are followed by vomiting or purging (the use of laxatives or diuretics), and may alternate with compulsive exercise and fasting. While an anorexic's weight loss is noticed, a bulimic may not look thin. Her dental enamel may erode (a result of stomach acid), and she'll have a sore throat from vomiting. A girl may begin with anorexia and move to bulimia; they also can coexist.

Anorexia and bulimia can be life-threatening. Studies show the typical patient is an adolescent female (males suffer from eating disorders, but at a far smaller percentage) who's a high achiever. The girl usually has successful parents and feels compelled to succeed. She may be a perfectionist and exhibit obsessive-compulsive behavior over cleanliness and organization. She likely suffers from low self-esteem and may begin to withdraw socially.

Both diseases are psychological disorders that manifest themselves in eating habits. The common psychological component is the need to control.

No one knows exactly what causes these eating disorders. Certainly our culture plays a big part, for there's little evidence of the disease in non-Western countries. Genetics plays a role; the disease tends to run in families. Stress also contributes to susceptibility. My friend's daughter, Bea, lost a close friend in a severe accident right before she left for college. A series of other stressful events threw this bright Christian woman into the throes of anorexia. Fortunately, she has a close relationship with her parents and got the help she needed.

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ratings & comments

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February 06, 2010  8:06am

Thank you for the frankness and honest look at eating disorders in this article. I am a student of nouthetic counseling and counsel Christian women with eating disorders online and in person, and last year I wrote a book dealing with the roots and process of recovery from a biblical perspective. EDs (bulimia in particular) are as prevalent among Christian women as among the general population. This is a spiritual problem masquerading as a physical one, and repentance and surrender to Christ is the only answer. Please visit my site for help: http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/


November 23, 2009  12:21pm

Itoo have been struggling with bulimia, and now - just realizing the bottom part of a few teeth are becoming see-through, I have realize that after struggling for going on 5 years now...My body has taken a massive beatn. I can only imagine what I've done to my insides. I live in redding, ca and am looking for affordable Christian counselling. I can't do this on my own, but yes - with God's help I will overcome this. I want to be Bethany again. Completely bubbly, outgoing and not afraid of food...


March 18, 2008  2:20pm

I would also like to add Compulsive Overeating as an eating disorder. As a 46 year old, Spirit-filled woman, I have struggled with my weight since puberty onset at 9 years old. By the grace of our God and King, Jesus, my body is 88 pounds lighter and I am 5 foot 8 inches in a size 12, down from a size 22-24. The Church is filled with sisters and brothers who have turned to food for relief and comfort from emotions. Shame, secrecy, fear, judgemental attitudes and well-wishers encouraging the use of more will-power/self-control, and cultural pressures prevented me from turning to God for relief from my nightmare. Today, I know that my day-by-day reprieve from the insanity of my disorder comes from Jesus Christ and, through the tools of an anonymous program and The Word, I am finding healing and strength for today. He is doing for me what I could never do for myself. All the glory for this joy and freedom to love the life You gave me is Yours, Father!

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