Ask Ester: Straight talk on eating disorders

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 28, 2009

Q: I suspect my daughter has an eating disorder. What do I look for, and what can I do to help?
A: This is a very tough one for me. Many years ago I wrote about this in one of my columns. Many readers do not know that I was battling bulimia in my late teens and early twenties ó a very dark time of my life.
I will get into my own experience in a little bit, but first let’s look what an eating disorder can be.
An eating disorder is a disturbance in someone’s eating behavior that compromises his or her physical and psychological health. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are chronic problems in which there is a preoccupation with food, eating and weight loss.
Anorexia nervosa is still more prevalent in young women than in young men. The disorder typically begins in “tweens” or teenage girls who are either overweight or perceive themselves that way. The interest in weight reduction becomes an obsession with severely restricted calorie intake and often excessive exercising.
People with bulimia (including men) tend to lead secretive lives, hiding their abnormal eating habits. In a single binge, they can consume 10,000-15,000 or more calories. The binge usually occurs in several stages:
– anticipation and planning
– anxiety
– urgency to begin,
– rapid and uncontrollable consumption of food,
– relief and relaxation
– disappointment
– shame
My own experience as a bulimic
I was always very muscular and actually was called a boy, even young man, many times. I was a lot stronger and faster than many boys growing up and always had to arm wrestle or fight (yes, I won every time!). At the age of about 13, I started Judo (a martial art where you throw people, break their arms and strangle them … although of course they can “tap out”).
I had to make my weight class, which was between 61.1 kg and 66 kg (137.4 and 148 pounds). I was always 2 to 3 pounds heavier. I used many techniques and tricks to lose weight very quickly, like running in a plastic bag, not eating anything or barely anything at all, and after the weigh-in eating like there was no tomorrow.
Myth: Bulimics always purge by vomiting
Fact: Not all bulimics try to rid themselves of the calories they have consumed by vomiting. Purging can also take form of laxatives, diuretics, exercising, or fasting.
As you can tell, I was already showing signs, but I was doing it to “make my weight class.”After a severe back injury that ended my Judo career, I went to the gym to strengthen my back. When I walked in, everyone thought I have been lifting weights for years. As a matter of fact, I guess I had been: the weights were human bodies. Soon after I started lifting weights, I got excited to enter a body building competition.
When you need to make a weight class for Judo, they don’t care how you look. With body building, looks are what matters: your muscles, your symmetry, your body fat. I did great with my “perfect” diet: no sweets, very low fat, everything steamed or grilled. I entered my first competition and won.
Afterwards, the reward is FOOD. Oh, and I binged. It wasn’t just me; it was the other bodybuilders too. Before I knew it, the body fat I lost for the competition was “packed back on.” And I felt FAT. Most bodybuilders have no problem with this and get back on a normal diet, possibly getting ready for another competition. Their binge was just a couple of days, or maybe one week. Mine turned into on and off binging and purging for years. As an instructor, it was very easy to say it was my job to teach four classes in a row almost every day of the week! I was purging by over-exercising and vomiting.
Myth: You can never recover from an eating disorder
Fact: Recovery takes a long time, but with hard work and the proper treatment (or in my case, lots of prayers with God), you can fully recover from an eating disorder.
My sister at one point found out. It was very hard to be confronted with the fact that you can’t hide it anymore, but also a relief. Unfortunately, neither she nor I knew what to do. You can’t just stop an eating disorder ó even when you want to.
Myth: People with eating disorders do this to hurt their family and friends
Fact: People with eating disorders are doing this to themselves. They are usually upset when they know the people around them are worried or hurt by their eating disorder.
I was in denial for so long, but I was also very miserable and alone during that time of my life. An eating disorder is an addiction to food. But guess what? You have to eat to live.
Telling a food addict to eat better is like telling an alcoholic to just have one drink a day or a heroin addict you can use it only once a day.
Myth: You cannot die from bulimia.
Fact:Bulimics are at high risk for dying, especially if they are purging, by vomiting, using laxatives, and over exercising. Many bulimics have died from cardiac arrest which is usually caused by low potassium or an electrolyte imbalance. Others have died from a ruptured esophagus.
Famous gymnast Kathy Johnson, Nadia Comaneci and Cathy Rigby have come forward and admitted to fighting eating disorders. In sports where athletes are judged by technical and artistic merit, the pressure to be thin is enormous. In 1988, at a meet in Budapest, an American judge told Christy Henrich ó at that time one of the world’s top gymnasts ó that she was too fat and needed to lose weight if she wanted to be on the Olympic team. She resorted to anorexia nervosa and bulimia to control her weight. Her disorder eventually took her life.
Christy Henrich died of multiple organ failures.
We have come a long way since then.
Myth: You can always tell when someone is Anorexic.
Fact: Not all anorexics look like the extreme cases we see on talk shows and magazines, some maybe anywhere from 5-15 pounds underweight. They look thin, but don’t have what society considers to be the anorexic look. That does not mean that their health is not in danger. Signs to look for from the experience of a recovering bulimic:
– Obsesses about weight, weighing numerous times a day, especially before and after eating;
– Eats very little, or eats lots of food, then immediately disappears to the bathroom and is gone a while.
– Exercises more than 3 hours or more a day most days of the week.
– Very unhappy with their appearance even when you think they look great.
– Brush their teeth many times a day.
– Knuckles have calluses, redness or teeth marks.
– Leaves the toilet a mess, or super-clean
When you suspect a problem, please talk to your doctor or her pediatrician. They will guide you and give you the appropriate steps to take. As many people know, when a loved one is having an eating disorder, the whole family suffers.
Please stand by them…even when they kick and scream….
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Contact Ester Marsh with health and fitness questions at 704-636-0111 or