According to estimates, as much as 15 percent of the country's female population suffers from some sort of eating disorder; that number alone would mean that many guys have encountered some of these women, many without even realizing it.
For bulimia alone, one study suggests that 2 percent to 3 percent of American women in their late adolescence and college years suffer from the malady while anorexia affects nearly 1 percent of American women.
Many men are not only ill-equipped to deal with eating disorders but totally ignorant that the women in their lives may actually be suffering.
In my own dating experience, I have been in serious relationships with women on both ends of the spectrum: One was a binge, comfort eater who masked her disorder with a combination of a bubbly exterior while consuming large amounts of food late at night when nobody else was around; the other, prone to heavy exercise and refusal to eat, especially at times of stress, exhibited signs of both anorexia and bulimia.
Linda Smolak, a psychology professor at Ohio's Kenyon College, who studies and writes about eating disorders, estimates 5 percent to 10 percent of the female population suffers from some type of eating disorder. She has even seen estimates as high as 15 percent.
"If you start adding in women who have something that is not completely diagnosed, 60 percent of adult women/teenage girls have serious body-dissatisfaction issues," said Smolak.
Most guys out there are not trained to recognize elements of peculiar or self-destructive behavior in the women they date. Further, some may not care. Encountering a woman with visible signs of an eating disorder may also send a guy packing. But what about the guy who actually cares about the woman?
"Women who come here tell me their boyfriends are clueless," said Dr. David Wall, a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders at the Remuda Ranch, a nationally known treatment facility with branches in Arizona and Virginia.
Eating disorders that go untreated can have serious health consequences, including potassium imbalances, heart problems, disruption of menstrual cycles, and dental problems from acid wearing down the enamel on teeth.
The forces driving some women into eating disorders include unattainable media images of women, emphasis on appearance and being thin and even dieting gone to the extreme to meet these standards. But experts note that an eating disorder is not simply a lifestyle choice, but a serious mental illness with life-threatening implications.
A Sense of Control
Many women who suffer from eating disorders believe that these illnesses "do good things. It gives them a voice. It gives them control," said Wall, adding that other self-destructive behavior, including drug or alcohol abuse, sometimes accompany eating disorders.
For both men and women, recognizing the symptoms or signs of an eating disorder is a first step.
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-IV), which sets the standards for diagnosing mental illness, lists criteria for anorexia as:
· Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.
· Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.
· Disturbance in the way one's body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of seriousness of current low body weight.
· Absence of at least three consecutive periods.
Similarly, the manual lists criteria for bulimia nervosa:
· Recurrent episodes of binge eating (eating an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat during a set period of time; a sense of a lack of self-control regarding eating during the episode, feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating).
· Recurrent inappropriate compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics, enemas or other medications; fasting or excessive exercise.
· Binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviors both occur, on average, at least twice a week for three months.
· Self-evaluation unduly influenced by body shape and weight.
Keep an Eye Out for Clues
Other clues, Smolak said, include women who do not eat in front of a guy or spend a lot of time moving food around their plates, as well as leaving to go to purge immediately following meals. Smolak said that women who talk a lot about exercising or body image issues may also suffer from an illness.
Wall said that some bulimic women exhibit visible signs, such as jowls under the jaw and swollen cheeks from frequently throwing up.
Being able to identify symptoms, said Wall, "depends on how close you are."
Read about what you can do in the Feb. 5 Exponent.
Roy S. Gutterman is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer. To contact him, visit: www.Lrev.com.