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Eating Disorders

What you need to know about this prevalent problem

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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