Today's Medicine

The Unhealthy Obsession with Being Thin

Measuring our worth

In a culture dominated by perfection and obsessed with thinness, we are bombarded with artificially-produced images of flawlessly sculpted men and women. We learn, often in our most vulnerable years, that we are only as good as our size, and our self-worth is measured in pounds. 

In this dizzying flurry of unrealistic — and unhealthy — expectations, 30 million Americans of all ages, genders, and backgrounds are suffering from eating disorders. This month — Eating Disorders Screening Program Month — we reach out to them and proclaim that all bodies are worth loving.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are marked by an unhealthy approach to eating, exercise, and weight. They include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. While different diseases, they share common features. 

Those suffering from anorexia and bulimia will often severely restrict food intake due to an overwhelming fear of gaining weight and engage in repetitive and frequently dangerous behaviors to prevent weight gain. Some may use medications inappropriately, induce vomiting or exercise excessively to rid themselves of calories. 

Binge-eating disorder is characterized by episodes of eating too quickly or eating large amounts of food in short periods of time. Those with binge-eating disorder will often eat until uncomfortably full and suffer from large swings in weight. 

Regardless of the specific disease, many will also struggle with untreated anxiety, depression, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not uncommon for those with eating disorders to feel shame, embarrassment, and a lack of control.

Dr. Shana Peper
Methodist Physicians Clinic Internal Medicine

How do I know if I or someone I love has an eating disorder?

It can be difficult to discuss a mental illness, such as an eating disorder, with our loved ones or others. Eating disorders carry the highest mortality rate of all mental health diagnoses, so it’s crucial to identify and treat these diseases early. 

Common symptoms of an eating disorder include: 

  • A preoccupation with being “fat” despite being underweight or at a normal weight
  • Rapid weight loss or fluctuations in weight
  • Obsession with calories and/or exercise
  • Refusing to eat in public
  • Skipped meals
  • Frequent trips to the restroom after meals
  • Large amounts of food that go missing. 

Those with an eating disorder may complain of feeling dizzy and cold, have problems sleeping and concentrating, and find their teeth rotting, muscles weakening, and hair, skin and nails thinning.

What are the health consequences of eating disorders?

Our bodies cannot thrive without proper nutrition, and eating disorders can be deadly. When we don’t take in enough calories, our hearts can fail, women stop having menstrual periods, our bones thin and are at high risk for breaking, and our stomach and colons slow. 

Those who engage in binging and purging behaviors risk dehydration, tears in the esophagus, and stomach rupture.

How do I get help?

If you suspect you or a loved one has an eating disorder, reach out to your primary care provider for help in finding care. Treatment of eating disorders requires a team of qualified professionals. Mental health care providers, psychiatrists, nutritionists and medical doctors work closely together to treat the complications from eating disorders, increase the body’s nutrition, and redevelop healthy habits and thought processes regarding food and exercise. 

You can find help by calling hotlines for eating disorders:

  • The National Eating Disorders Association: 1-800-931-2237  
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: 630-577-1330

About the Author

A child of a military family, internal medicine physician Dr. Shana Peper was raised to be selfless and do whatever she could to help others.

She treats a wide range of patients at Methodist Physicians Clinic Indian Hills.

See more articles from Shana Peper, MD
Photo of Shana Peper, MD