Understanding Your Body and the Disorder

Both anorexia and bulimia are considered psychiatric disorders that have physical complications. Both disorders grow out of worries about having too much body fat. This is particularly true of females. Prior to puberty, boys and girls have about the same percentage of body fat—about nine to 12 percent. However, at the end of puberty, body fat has usually doubled in girls, reaching about 25 percent of body weight, while boys have grown leaner and more muscular. These dramatic changes in the female body type predispose girls to preoccupation and dissatisfaction with their weight.

Persons with anorexia and bulimia feel driven to reduce their weight, usually by dieting (purposefully restricting their food intake). As such, both individuals must fight against their bodies’ natural hunger signals, as well as other biological factors that control eating and body weight. The word anorexia means loss of appetite, but it is really a misnomer because anorectic individuals usually are hungry and are preoccupied with thoughts of food. (Nervosa means nervous.) As weight loss increases and the illness progresses, patients begin to display both physical and psychological consequences, including depression, lack of concentration and irritability, which are a direct consequence of physical starvation. These problems are reversed when anorexic individuals resume eating and gain weight.

Bulimia means “ox hunger,” referring to the large amount of food consumed during binge episodes. Persons with bulimia are not as successful at dieting as anorexics. They may successfully deny their hunger and restrict their food intake for several days or weeks at a time. However, sooner or later, often when they feel emotionally upset, persons with bulimia lose control over their dieting. They begin to eat and cannot stop eating until they have stuffed themselves. Such overeating is thought to compensate for the prior caloric restriction. Binge eating may also result from impaired satiety (feelings of fullness). Many bulimics report that they have trouble feeling full, unless they eat
large amounts of food.