Why do so many adolescent males and females suffer from anorexia?

Anorexia can be describes as a general medical symptom of decreased appetite. It is a general non-psychiatric condition.  Its medical diagnostic varies with many descriptions that vary with the particular form of anorexia and/ or the group it mainly affects. To this effect we have examples of this condition that include Anorexia nervosa, Anorexia mirabilis, and Sexual anorexia among others (Parker, 2003).

Anorexia nervosa (commonly referred to as anorexia, but negated by definition) is the psychiatric diagnosis that describes eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is a disease that affects all organ systems with principal systems affected being the cardiovascular and the endocrine systems. It involves and affected by neurobiological, psychological and sociological factors. Its general precursor (best described as condition) is an obsessive fear of gaining weight. It is characterized by low body weight and a general body image distortion, due to massive malnutrition.

Individuals with this condition are known to control their body weights by weight control measures that include use of diet pills or diuretic drugs, voluntary starvation, vomiting, excessive exercise among others. Anorexia nervosa is a complex condition that can lead to death in severe cases.

Anorexia nervosa can be of two types as described by the behavioral characteristics exhibited by the people who suffer from the condition. The restricting type (“restricting”) is exhibited by anorexics that exercise excessively and at the same time severely limit their caloric intake. The other type of anorexia nervosa, the binge-eating/purging type (“binge-eating/purging”) is characterized by anorexics that eat large amounts of food then purge the body of the ingested food by ways like self-induced vomiting, use of excessive amounts of diuretics and enemas among others. This second form though is often defined and called Bulimia (Parker, 2003).

Apart from the obvious symptoms that characterize anorexia nervosa, other symptoms that are observed include loss of at least three consecutive menstrual periods (in women), shortness of breath, brittle skin, anxiety and refusal to eat in public.

Anorexia nervosa occurs most frequently in adolescent girls and boys, though it also does affect adults. Anorexics though are ten times more likely to be female than male. Only approximately 10% of people with the diagnosis are male. This therefore implies that the condition is generally rare in males, but not completely absent. Men are more likely to overindulge in exercise due to anorexia nervosa. Treatment for men is also less available than for women. Men also take longer to recover from the condition as compared to women. Relapse is often common in males (Mitchell, 2000).

Various reasons have been proposed as to why anorexia is prevalent in adolescent males and females. Most reasons though do culminate to various eating habits created by again different socio-economic factors that affect the population in target. Puberty also goes a long way into affecting adolescents’ perception on weight and body size. Children at this age compare their body size and shape to that of peers and cultural ideals, and in many cases do experiment with various measures to bring their bodies to conformance. Children at this age in average perceive that being overweight is unattractive and associate it with negative personality traits. This therefore makes this age group extra sensitive on issues that deal with body image.

Reasons as to why so many adolescent males and females suffer from anorexia can be described as factors or causes for this condition. As stated earlier, anorexia nervosa is caused by a combination of physiological, social and psychological factors.

Physiological factors can be described as genetic factors, neurobiological factors and nutritional factors. Genetic factors have been found to contribute at high percentage to the development of eating disorders such as (in this case) anorexia nervosa. This does imply that genes that affect eating regulation may be a vital contributing factor. These genes also affect personality and emotion which play a role in affecting eating habits. It should also be noted that anorexia shares a genetic risk with clinical depression. Clinical depression could be a precursor to anorexia or vice versa.

Nutritional factors have also been seen to have an effect on anorexia. Chemicals of particular nature are seen to encourage or discourage effects of anorexia in people. Forms of malnutrition-induced malnutrition are seen to occur as a result to deficiency of nutrients such as tyrosine and thiamine. A Zinc deficiency is seen to cause a considerable decrease in appetite, which can cause anorexia nervosa in the long run. To this effect, various compounds of Zinc have been used in the treatment of anorexia and its effects with considerable success.

In neurobiological factors, the neurotransmitter serotonin is seen to play a rather vital role.  Strong correlations between serotonin and various psychological symptoms such as mood, sexuality and appetite have been studied and proved. This therefore does prove the argument that anorexia is linked to a disturbed serotonin system to be true. A more current research study pits the occurrence of anorexia in people to appetite and stress response as occasioned by changes in the autoimmune response to melanocortin peptides.

Psychological factors basically relate to people’s general perception and how they contribute to the risk of developing anorexia. How people perceive their individual self does in turn affect their eating habits as earlier implied. Anorexics tend to associate themselves with being oversize and fat but despite this, the actual response and perception to this may be what distinguishes those who do and those who do not develop anorexia. As therefore implied, people with anorexia are seen to exude confidence, in themselves and their appearance, in a circle of their peers which is a disadvantage to them. Such a personality trait and others such as high levels of obsession, restraint and perfectionism go a long way into the development of eating disorders in anorexics. Other psychological difficulties and mental illnesses also play a role in effects suffered by anorexics. Some studies have shown that due to this condition, patients generally have attention focused on their general body image and everything relating to it which therefore narrows their range of thinking. Various precursors such as child abuse have also been seen to encourage development of anorexia in teens. This though can be taken to be as a result of factors such as clinical depression which has been known to encourage eating disorders.

Socio-economic and cultural factors that contribute to development of anorexics in society are more prevalent in developed and civilized countries as compared to many third world countries (developing countries). Cultural factors, such as the promotion of thinness as the ideal female form in Western nations as portrayed by the media have been seen to promote this otherwise negative trend. A slim figure is the socially acceptable body size among female adolescents and young women, especially in industrialized countries. Studies suggesting the correlation between gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status have been shown to influence the occurrence of anorexia in a population. As therefore implied, anorexia nervosa is seen to be less prevalent to almost non-existent in non-western (“non-white”) populations. Scholars have argued that the fact that food being scarce in third world nations discourages the emergence of eating disorders in the population. Recent studies though have shown that exposure to the Western media and the ethics they propose have led to increased cases of anorexia in non-Western countries. Child sexual abuses (which may also affect their physiological nature) have also been seen to play a role in the development of anorexia in children. Ethnic differences that may arise and influence anorexia nervosa as a condition in the population are mainly related to culture. Studies have suggested that many African teens are less likely to be concerned about loosing weight as compared to their European counterparts (Papalia, 1997).

All in all, anorexia is a condition that can be treated. Western countries that have this problem prevalent in their teen population generally have more elaborate clinics and hospitals to deal with these conditions. Treatment and prevention of this problem involves every member of the society. Not treating this condition in the early stages may result in death and therefore early detection is an added advantage in treating the condition (Lask, 1999).



Lask, B. & Waugh, R. B. Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence.  Psychology Press, 1999

Mitchell, J. E. Points of View: Stories of Psychopathology. Psychology Press, 2000

Papalia, D. E., Olds, S. W. & Feldman, R. D. Human Development. McGraw-Hill, 1997

Parker, J. N. & Parker P. M. Anorexia: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide to Internet References. ICON Health Publications, 2003


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