The Herald Bulletin

February 5, 2013

Selah House message: 'Don’t let your mind bully your body'

The causes and costs of eating disorders

By Baylee Pulliam
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — In a local eating disorder treatment center, notes have been written by adults and passed along to youth.

The notes carry daily motivational messages such as “You are safe here” and “Live every moment.”

One reflects the causes of many eating disorders: “Don’t let your mind bully your body.”

The messages have been posted on mirrors at Anderson’s Selah House.

Founded seven years ago by former anorexia sufferer Misty Rees, Selah operates two residential treatment centers for women and teens with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders.

For up to 24 million sufferers in the U.S., eating disorders are complex, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. If left untreated, eating disorders such as anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (self-induced vomiting), can have serious — even life-threatening — consequences.

While occasional controlled dieting isn’t typically a problem, it becomes one when the dieter slips into compulsive behaviors.

“It’s when they develop a lot of very stringent food rules,” said Selah’s marketing director Rhonda Fowler. “Eating needs to be relaxed. It needs to be intuitive.”

According to statistics cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 35 percent of so-called “normal dieters” eventually become  pathological dieters, and of those, almost one quarter progress to partial or full-blown eating disorders.

Under the radar

While the consequences are serious, eating disorders can sometimes fly under the radar.

It’s hard to get a fix on exactly how many eating disorders go unreported, but Mental Health America lists red flags for friends and loved ones.   

For example, it said, a person suffering from anorexia may skip meals, only eat small portions or might avoid eating in front of others. People suffering from bulimia might leave a foul-smelling bathroom, run water to cover sounds of vomiting and use breath mints to mask the smell.

“There are actually websites that teach how to hide it,” Fowler said.

In June 2010, Johns Hopkins researchers studied 180 sites often called “Pro-Ana” or “Pro-ED.” About 83 percent of those sites gave advice on things like hiding eating disorder behaviors.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, those sites often villainize food, glamorize emaciated or very thin people, deny the seriousness of consequences and “insist that eating disorders are choices, rather than a serious illness.”

But “it’s not a choice,” Fowler said. “It’s a really vicious cycle of thoughts and behaviors.”

Serious consequences

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, “People struggling with an eating disorder need to seek professional help” or they risk serious consequences.

For example, because their bodies are denied the basic nutrients needed to function normally, people with anorexia nervosa can develop health problems. The body is forced to slow down to conserve energy, which can cause muscle loss and weakness, severe dehydration, dry skin, hair loss, fainting, brittle bones and slowed heart rate, which could eventually lead to heart failure.

“You’d be surprised that a 20-year-old girl could have heart failure,” Fowler said, “But it happens.”

If left untreated, there’s also a chance an eating disorder could cost victims their lives.

The NAANAD cites high crude mortality rates in its study for those with anorexia nervosa (4 percent), bulimia nervosa (3.9 percent) and other unspecified eating disorders (5.2 percent).

“The most important thing is to get help just as soon as possible,” Fowler said.

Find reporter Baylee Pulliam on Facebook, on Twitter @BayleeNPulliam or call 648-4250.