LITTLE ROCK, AR (Feb. 16, 2010) -- Eating disorders are a group of psychiatric illnesses with significant and potentially devastating physical complications. They have the highest mortality rate among psychiatric illnesses. Not only does an eating disorder affect the physical health of a person, it is primarily a psychological illness. More suicides result from patients with a diagnosed eating disorder than depression. With 8 million Americans of all ages already diagnosed with an eating disorder, it is important to become familiar with these disorders to help identify and treat them as early as possible.
The week of Feb. 21-27 is designated as National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The National Eating Disorders Association aims to raise awareness to help the public better understand every aspect of an eating disorder, creating a better understanding of the behavior that could indicate a person has an eating disorder, the threats the illness poses to a person's physical and emotional health, who to contact for help and the treatment involved.
Although eating disorders are seen in both genders, and in people of all ages - from children as young as age 5 to the elderly - they are most commonly seen in adolescent females. Maria Portilla, MD, is the medical director of the Adolescent Eating Disorder Clinic at Arkansas Children's Hospital and an associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine. Portilla and her colleague, Tracie Pasold, PhD, evaluate an average of two new patients a week for a potential diagnosis of an eating disorder. Pasold is the psychosocial director of the Adolescent Eating Disorders Program at Arkansas Children's Hospital and an assistant professor of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
"With better awareness of the signs of these eating disorders, we can hopefully help educate the public on what to look for in their friends and loved ones," said Portilla. "Our goal here is to identify the illness as early as possible and begin treatment before the condition is life-threatening - and it certainly can be life-threatening."
Portilla says that the eating disorders diagnosed in the Eating Disorder Clinic at Arkansas Children's Hospital include anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
"Individuals who have an eating disorder may see themselves as overweight, when in fact they are malnourished," said Portilla. "Symptoms and signs of anorexia nervosa can include excessive weight loss, excessive exercise, avoiding fats and carbohydrates or avoiding meals altogether, fatigue, fainting, missed menstrual periods, sleep disturbance, constipation and/or depression."
The symptoms and signs of bulimia nervosa can include eating large amounts of food in a short time period followed by purging, excessive exercise after a meal, an obsession with food or weight, mood swings, a frequent sore throat, heart burn, abdominal pain, constipation/diarrhea and/or swelling of hands or feet.
"The important thing to remember is this is a real illness," said Portilla. "Biological or mental, it's real. Are kids doing this on purpose? No. To get attention? No. The truth is you wouldn't ask that from someone diagnosed with cancer."
Portilla says these disorders can be caused by five possible factors. These include genetics, personality traits such as obsessive compulsive or perfectionist tendencies, chemical imbalances in the brain, relationships, environment or the media. There are key factors that can sometimes trigger a person to fully develop an eating disorder. Triggers can include stressful events such as the onset of puberty, the death of a friend or family member, parents divorcing, other relationships ending or other distressing experiences.
"Several serious health complications can result from an eating disorder or an inadequate diet. Complications can include loss of muscle mass, loss of bone mass (osteoporosis) or loss of menstrual periods - leading to infertility, hair loss or abnormal sugar metabolism. Eating disorders can also trigger fainting, abnormal electrolytes which can also lead to seizures or an irregular heart beat that can result in death," Portilla said.
Pasold feels that the best treatment for eating disorders should be provided by professionals from different disciplines.
"This ideal approach entails a multidisciplinary team effort that includes a medical physician, nutritionist/dietician, psychotherapist, psychiatrist and a specialty nurse," said Pasold. "Professionals who specialize in eating disorders are recommended for best results." The earlier an eating disorder is identified and treated, the better the prognosis.
Role modeling plays another important factor in properly treating someone with an eating disorder. Parents of all adolescents, especially those with an eating disorder, should practice healthy eating behaviors. An ideal role model should practice eating well-balanced meals three times a day, exercising properly three to four times a week and avoid making negative comments about themselves or their body image. Parents whose child has an eating disorder should be especially careful to avoid discussions about dieting or their child's eating disorder, cut back on weekly activities, and should spend quality time eating meals together three or four times a week.
Although treatment and rehabilitation for an eating disorder can often take months, and sometimes years, to overcome this illness, the rewards of regaining a healthy, fulfilling life with high self-esteem and healthy eating habits are well worth the hard work in the long run.
For more information on the Eating Disorders Clinic at Arkansas Children's Hospital, call (501) 364-1849.
Children's Hospital is the only pediatric medical center in Arkansas and one of the largest in the United States serving children. The campus spans 29 city blocks and houses 316 beds, a staff of approximately 500 physicians, 80 residents in pediatrics and pediatric specialties and more than 4,200 employees. The private, nonprofit healthcare facility boasts an internationally renowned reputation for medical breakthroughs and intensive treatments, unique surgical procedures and forward-thinking medical research - all dedicated to fulfilling our mission of enhancing, sustaining and restoring children's health and development.ACH is ranked 85th on the 2010 FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For®. For more information, visit
UAMS is the state's only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a new 540,000-square-foot hospital, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,652 students and 733 medical residents. Its centers of excellence include the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is the state's largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children's Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS' Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. Visit