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Eating Disorders: Those At High Risk, Or Risk Being Overlooked

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When watching for signs of an eating disorder in yourself or someone you care about, extra consideration should be given to four groups of people.

Adolescents, athletes, pregnant women, and men either have higher rates of eating disorders than the general population, or are at risk of being overlooked for signs of disordered eating.

Adolescents

Though the onset of an eating disorder (ED) can occur at any age, bulimia and anorexia most often begin during adolescence. Approximately 0.3 percent of adolescents develop anorexia, and 0.9 percent develop symptoms of bulimia.

The intense physical, mental, and emotional developmental changes during adolescence can create the perfect storm for ED development. Triggers for adolescent onset include changing physique, shifting hormones, peer pressure, identity issues, the need to belong, media influence, genetic traits, and personal/family history.

Athletes

Participating in sports, particularly those that require a focus on diet and body mass (e.g., wrestling, bodybuilding, running, crew, gymnastics, martial arts, ballet), put athletes at risk of developing eating disorders. Both male and female athletes are susceptible, though the incidence is greater in women. Female athletes with EDs are also at risk for a cluster of serious health problems called the female athlete triad. The triad involves a depletion of energy, bone loss, and menstrual disturbances.

Athletes with specific character traits may also be at higher risk for ED behaviors. For instance, psychological profiles of athletes with anorexia found they shared several qualities:

  • competitiveness, drive, hyperactivity
  • perfectionism, high self-expectations, tendency toward depression
  • compulsiveness, repetitive exercise routines
  • body image distortions, preoccupation with weight/dieting

Pregnant Women

Roughly 5 percent of pregnant women will experience ED symptoms. Most vulnerable are those who had an ED earlier in life, or have symptoms when conceiving. Some moms-to-be notice symptom improvement during pregnancy, and continued ED diminishment following delivery. Other women notice a sharp increase of symptoms after the baby is born, even if symptoms lessen while carrying.

An ED creates health concerns for the mother during pregnancy and delivery, and puts infants at risk for temperament issues, below average growth, and toddler eating difficulties.

Men

Though EDs are less frequently observed in men, eating disorders are not a female disease. An estimated 25 to 40 percent of people with EDs are male, and up to 10 million men in the U.S. will have symptoms in their lifetime.

Men with eating disorders are an especially vulnerable group since they:

  • Are less likely to talk about their symptoms.
  • Are less likely to seek treatment.
  • May be met with resistance or have their symptoms overlooked by healthcare personnel.
  • Tend to be under scored on ED assessments.

Men in treatment for EDs also have a high percentage of coexisting conditions including poor body image, excessive exercise routines, and sexuality issues.

Sources: Mirror Mirror; Chapman University; N.A.M.E.D.
Photo credit: Phalinn Ooi