Wasting away: why eating disorders demand tough love?

Q: My girlfriend is 21 pounds underweight. She has an eating disorder. I am the only other person who knows, and I really want to get her help so she won’t get really sick. What should I do?

A: I commend you for recognizing that your girlfriend has a serious problem. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia can be life threatening, and prompt intervention can be truly lifesaving. Most young women with this disorder have significant problems with self-esteem, and view themselves as fat, regardless of their actual weight. Unfortunately, the society in which we live worships the skinny model as ideal, and women are told that skinny is good.

Women with anorexia often lose their menstrual periods, as their estrogen levels fall quite low. They secondarily are at significant risk for bone loss, just like menopausal women. Their thyroid function also can become abnormal, and it may take a while for their hormone production to get back to normal, even after they’ve regained the weight. Recovery is usually a slow process, so do not be discouraged if your girlfriend doesn’t wolf down the quart of ice cream you have just given her, or even eat normal meals anytime soon.

The best remedy for anorexia is continuous psychotherapy. It does not have to be with a physician. Indeed, a good counselor, especially one skilled in dealing with young women with eating disorders, is best. And continuous support from her loved ones is crucial, so thank you for being there for her.

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