21 April 2008

Dying to be thin

French politicians have called for stiff penalties against 'pro-anorexia' websites and publications - a move that has highlighted the risks of excessive dieting once more.

French politicians made news this week when they called for stiff penalties of up to three years' jail and heavy fines against 'pro-anorexia' websites and publications that encourage girls and young women to starve themselves.

Aimed mainly at so-called 'pro-ana' blogs and websites where anorexics share experiences and tips on subjects like appetite suppressants, the law would impose penalties of two years plus 30 000 euros (about R380 000) for "incitement to excessive thinness by publicising of any kind".

The approval of this ground-breaking bill might help to save the lives of models who go to extremes in order to secure a position on the catwalk. It also serves as a reminder of the unfortunate death of an anorexic Brazilian model in 2006 - a death that shocked the fashion world and also highlighted the risks of excessive dieting.

Ana Carolina Reston (21), who weighed a mere 40kg, died of generalised infection caused by anorexia nervosa – an eating disorder that is characterised by an abnormal fear of gaining weight, leading to self-starving behaviour.

Models fail to exercise mature judgement
"The idea that young girls torture themselves to reach this state of starvation, just so that they can be models, is mind-boggling," wrote registered dietician Dr Ingrid van Heerden in a previous article on Health24.

In this article, Van Heerden referred to an incident, also in 2006, where a 16-year-old model was withdrawn from a fashion show because of her emaciated appearance.

The dietician rightly remarks that young girls, who are lured by the glittering lights and glamour of modelling, often fail to exercise mature judgement as regards a healthy body weight.

"But who can blame our young girls for wanting to be super-skinny models when they see pictures of emaciated women in every magazine, on every TV programme and in every advertisement?" Van Heerden asks. "Being thin has become the Holy Grail of modern female life. No wonder impressionable and vulnerable young girls think that if they can only get as thin as possible, they too will become famous."

How the body is harmed
When someone's body mass index (BMI) drops to below 15, his or her health is seriously compromised. The patient's heart is one of the vital organs that can be affected.

Registered dietician Gina Stear explains why: when the body is deprived of energy in the form of food over an extended period, it starts to utilise the muscles for energy. The skeletal muscles will be targeted first, then the fat stores and then the organ muscles, such as the heart muscle. When the heart muscle is compromised, it won't be able to function optimally anymore.

"If someone actively suffers from anorexia, death from heart failure can occur in severe cases," Stear says.

Apart from the effects on the heart, anorexia can also adversely affect the gastrointestinal tract, the central nervous system, the kidneys and the bones. The immune system can also be seriously compromised, which can lead to infection.

Bulimia nervosa, another common eating disorder, can have equally serious consequences.

A life-long problem
Stear notes that an eating disorder is usually a life-long problem, and that many patients experience "ups" and "downs" throughout their life, depending on their mental, physical and emotional condition.

"Patients who actively want to make the relevant lifestyle changes usually get to a point where they're okay," Stear says. "These patients manage to get to a level where they're able to survive, but they can still suffer mentally, even though, on a physical level, they're not knocking on death's door."

About 50% of anorexic people get back to their normal weight, but almost half of them continue to suffer from other symptoms such as depression, anxiety or difficulty with close interpersonal and familial relationships.

What to do
If you or a loved one is affected by an eating disorder, it's important to get professional help as soon as possible.

Visit the Association for Dietetics in SA website and click on "Find a Dietician" to find a dietician in your area who can help. Also ask your family doctor to refer you to a clinical psychologist.

It might also be a good idea to contact a clinic specialising in patients with eating disorders. In Gauteng, Tara Hospital has an Eating Disorder Clinic – phone (011) 783 2010. In the Cape Town area, contact Crescent Clinic on (021) 762 7666.

- (Reuters and Health24's Carine van Rooyen, April 2008)

Read more:
Stiff penalties for pro-ana sites
Could I have an eating disorder?


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.