The eating disorders anorexia and bulimia have been called “suicide in slow motion”. These psychiatric illnesses, in which food is the substance of abuse, can cause serious physical and psychological problems and can lead to death.
Anorexia or “voluntary starvation” has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses according to the National Eating Disorders Information Centre. It kills 12 times more adolescent girls than all other causes combined.
Fewer deaths are attributed to bulimia or “binge-and-purge behavior” even though it is more common than anorexia. However, it can be just as lethal. Terri Schiavo suffered a cardiac arrest due to bulimia-induced hypokalemia or abnormally low levels of potassium in the blood. This deprived her brain of oxygen long enough to put her into a “persistent vegetative state”.
Abuse of emetics (medication to induce vomiting), slimming teas, laxatives, and diuretics can cause electrolyte imbalance and cardiac arrest.
It’s a pity that in the right-to-die controversy that surrounded her condition, the message that bulimia can kill was lost.
It’s always sad when young people die in the prime of their life but if their deaths can be a warning to others, then they would not have died in vain.
One lesson to be learned from the case of Terri Schiavo is that bulimia can be deceiving. She was not skeletal thin when she went into cardiac arrest. Bulimics can look perfectly healthy even though they are throwing up many times a day or are taking 50-100 laxatives daily. Unlike anorexics, bulimics are usually of normal weight or just slightly underweight so loved ones do not suspect anything is wrong. If they do find the eating behavior strange, they may think it is not dangerous just like Schiavo’s husband and friends.
Psychologist Doug Bunnell, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, told the Associated Press about Schiavo, “Paint me a picture of an eating disorder –it’s an emaciated woman. But that’s not the reality. They don’t get down that low. The face of eating disorders is your next-door neighbor’s daughter or maybe your own”.
Here are two famous eating disorder deaths and the lessons that we can learn from them.
At one time, Christy Henrich was the third-ranking female gymnast in the United States. Like many female athletes, winning a gold medal was her main ambition. Her battle with anorexia and bulimia began in 1988 when a judge told her to lose weight to improve her performance to join the U.S. Olympic team. Ironically, Henrich weighed 90 pounds at that time.
Henrich died in 1994 at the age of 22 from multiple organ failure. She weighed 65 pounds
but at one point, she went as low as 47 pounds! Her death inspired research that led to the discovery of the “female athlete triad”, a condition with inter-related symptoms of disordered eating, loss of the menstrual cycle, and reduced bone density. Chief researcher Debra Rhea said, “Eating disorders among female athletes are among the most serious problems facing this population and parallels the seriousness of anabolic steroid use in male athletes”.
Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby survived her fight with anorexia and bulimia but she suffered two cardiac arrests. Other Olympic gymnasts who have admitted having eating disorders are Kathy Johnson and Nadia Comaneci.
Athletes with eating disorders are in double jeopardy of sudden death from cardiac arrest because aside from depriving their bodies of much-needed nutrients, they are also training hard. This can lead to electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrhythmias. Experts warn that non-athletes who diet severely and exercise excessively can also be in danger for the same reasons.
Anybody who works in a field where weight is important to their performance or advancement of their career needs to be aware of developing unhealthy eating or exercise patterns. Coaches, trainers, fashion and TV mentors should also watch what they say and how they pressure the talents under them to lose weight.
Words are powerful. When someone tells a teenage girl or boy that they are fat, plump, or chubby whether out of concern or because of our negative Pinoy habit of unsolicited comments on other people’s appearance, they don’t realize the psychological damage that they may be causing.
Karen Carpenter was the first celebrity to die from anorexia and bulimia. Her death was the catalyst for true public awareness of eating disorders. She was a chubby teenager who started dieting when she was 16 years old. She lost 25 pounds but became obsessed with losing more. When she collapsed on stage in 1975, she was down to 80 pounds. Sadly, even though Carpenter sought therapy for her eating disorders, she still became a victim when she died suddenly at the age of 32 in 1983. The damage had already been done. Her heart was weakened from the years of self-inflicted abuse.
The physical effects of eating disorders can haunt you for years. One of the irreversible side effects is loss of bone density, which can cause osteoporosis.
Research has found that anorexics and bulimics have brain chemistry irregularities but it cannot yet be determined if this is a cause or an effect of the disorders. Whatever the case may be, one does not become a full-blown anorexic or bulimic overnight. It usually starts during the teenage years with “disordered eating”.
Examples of disordered or dysfunctional eating are the use of laxatives, diuretics or sweating techniques to lose weight, crash dieting, skipping meals, fasting, and obsessive calorie, carbohydrate or fat counting. In susceptible individuals, disordered eating can become an eating disorder.
We are all born with a specific body type and structure. Trying to be super skinny when we are naturally more voluptuous can only lead to frustration and damage to our health. We need to accept, respect, and celebrate our unique body type.