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Eating disorders awareness

Eating disorders: a story of hope

Mary’s* parents, Mr and Mrs Tshabalala*, started worrying about their daughter. At the tender age of 16 she was on a diet that just seemed to have no end in sight. Mary had never been overweight so, as loving parents, they couldn’t understand why she was so obsessed with losing weight. They were also concerned about her frequent mood swings; her self-esteem was low, and she wasn’t the happy child they had known her to be. Then one day the school called and told them that Mary had fainted in class. She was rushed to hospital. To their shock, the doctor referred her to an eating disorder support group and therapist.

 Mary was immediately admitted to a mental health and wellness centre as an inpatient. The specialist told her parents that her weight was dangerously low. She also had bradycardia (a very low heart rate) and hypothermia (a low body temperature). Mary needed bedrest and 24-hour care. They put her on a gradually increasing diet formulated by a dietitian so that she could increase her food intake, and over time, improve her physical health and weight.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious condition identified by persistently poor eating behaviors that have a negative impact on physical health, emotional well-being and ability to function properly in everyday life. In the case of Mary, it affected her ability to function normally at school even though her marks were not bad. The most common eating disorders include bulimia nervosa (a binge-eating disorder) and anorexia nervosa. The main differences between the two are that anorexia nervosa is a syndrome of self-starvation involving significant weight loss of 15 percent or more of ideal body weight. whereas patients with bulimia nervosa will binge eat large amounts of food then purge (make themselves sick) to get rid of extra calories although they usually maintain a normal weight or are slightly above their ideal weight. These disorders can damage your heart, digestive system, teeth, mouth and bones. It’s a serious disorder and should not be taken lightly.

 Signs that someone may have an eating disorder

Awareness is key in knowing when someone needs help. If Mary’s parents were aware of these signs and symptoms, they may have been better equipped to see that there was a problem before Mary ended up in hospital. Mary had eight of these symptoms:

  • Making excuses to miss meals regularly, insisting on making her own food or eating in secret
  • Excessive focus on following a healthy diet
  • Withdrawal from regular social activities, depression, negative and self-shaming
  • Regularly complaining about being fat and losing weight when there is no need to
  • Using laxatives or weight loss products, switching diets regularly
  • Binge-eating large amounts of high-fat foods, sweets and chocolates repeatedly
  • Overdoing a fitness programme
  • Calluses on the knuckles to induce vomiting
  • Loss of tooth enamel which is a sign of repeated vomiting
  • Leaving every meal to go to the bathroom
  • Eating much more than normal, then eating nothing

Getting help for an eating disorder

After Mary picked up her weight, she joined a support group that focused on her anxiety and changing her negative body image. She came to realize that she experienced severe distress from certain life events, which activated her eating disorder. The family was given a meal plan and they made sure Mary followed it. After many sessions with her group, she took control of her eating habits in a positive way. Today Mary eats well, is a much happier person, has a lot more energy and socialises like a regular teen.

If you have a friend who’s showing signs of an eating disorder, you should try to speak to them about it. Tell them that you care about their well-being. You may not be able to prevent an eating disorder from developing, but if you reach out gently and with compassion, you may encourage your friend to speak to a parent or a professional or join a support group. Don’t just leave it. You could save a life!

If you think you may have an eating disorder, click here for a wide variety of places and organizations that could help you in your area.


*Names were changed to protect the patient’s identity.

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