According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Yet in a survey conducted by Consumer Reports, only 11 percent of those polled believed they fell into either category [source: Rowan].
So it's clear that the majority of Americans need a bit of a wake-up call when it comes to body image. Yet the messages that reach people regarding weight can often cause more harm than good. Consider this:
- The female body type that most frequently shows up in advertising as "ideal" is actually only possessed by 5 percent of American women.
- Forty-seven percent of 5th through 12th grade girls say they want to lose weight because of images they've seen in a magazine [source: ANAD].
- Up to 24 million people across a range of ages suffer from an eating disorder -- the mental illness with the highest mortality rate of all [source: ANAD].
Clearly, for thousands of people each year, dieting is not just a way to stay in shape; instead, it becomes an unhealthy obsession. The ironic result is that an activity that should be beneficial -- keeping fit and trim -- often winds up causing serious stress to both the mind and body.
Here, we examine five warning signs that a focus on one's weight has tipped the scales from healthy examination to dangerous fixation.
Exercising is a great way to strengthen muscles and bones, reduce stress, improve coordination, and ward off a host of diseases like hypertension and osteoporosis. Except when it isn't.
When exercise becomes a compulsive behavior -- often driven by concerns about weight and body image -- it can actually whittle away muscle mass and damage the heart. Compulsive exercising, which is also called anorexia athletica or obligatory exercise, is characterized by the desire to exercise above all else -- even if that means giving up friends, missing social engagements, or pushing through workouts if you feel ill, injured or exhausted.
Another warning sign that exercising has become a health detriment instead of benefit, is feeling extremely guilty if you miss a workout, and doubling up your efforts in your next exercise session. The same holds true if a compulsive exerciser feels he's consumed too many calories before a workout.
If compulsive exercise is combined with an eating disorder such as anorexia (more on that later), the result can be fatal.
Watching your daily intake of calories is a healthy idea. Obsessively counting each and every calorie that passes through your lips, being constantly hungry because you are not taking in enough food or setting severe eating rules for yourself can all indicate that a healthy behavior has become an unhealthy obsession.
The amount of calories you should take in on a daily basis depends on your age, gender and level of activity, although as a general rule, the average man should consume about 2,500 per day, and the average woman should take in 2,000 per day [source: NIH]. To figure out exactly how many calories you need to maintain your weight, or lose weight in a healthy way, you can try using the American Heart Association's fat and calorie counter. Taking in fewer calories than you see recommended there can indicate that you've taking things too far in your quest to lose weight.
Another facet of this type of obsession is placing yourself on a severe diet, such as one in which you eat only a single type of food (like pastes or gels), replacing full meals with a glass of water, or chewing gum in lieu of getting yourself a nutritious plate of food.
The scale. It can be a powerful ally in the quest to maintain a healthy body -- or it can be an unhealthy enabler that feeds into an obsession about your weight.
Check it at the same time of day once a week and it can help you gauge how different levels of activity and calorie consumption affect your body weight. Check it more than once a day and it could be a sign that you're too fixated on your weight. Not only is compulsive weighing bad because of the stress it'll add to your day, it's also important to realize that body weight naturally fluctuates throughout the day, so multiple weigh-ins don't really tell you much about true weight loss or gain.
Another sign that you're "scale obsessed" is that the little number you see in its window feels more like a judgment than a piece of information -- and that number can impact how you feel about yourself throughout the day.
In combating the siren song of the scale, it's important to remember that it is just one tool that helps you determine how healthy you are. The way your clothes fit, the amount of energy you have and the quality of the foods you put in your mouth all play an equally important role in determining your overall condition.
Looking in the mirror and honestly evaluating what you see can be a useful first step and motivating factor along the road to weight loss. But for some people, the image that stares back from the looking glass can be as warped as Alice's size-shifting body in Lewis Carroll's famous tale.
If you begin to focus too strongly on how fat one part of your body is (say your abs or triceps) -- especially if those body parts fall within normal size ranges -- it could be a sign that you are developing something known as body dysmorphic disorder. Those afflicted by this condition, which is sometimes called "imagined ugliness," tend to be extremely self-conscious, constantly comparing themselves to others, obsessively checking (or avoiding) mirrors, and believe that others share the same negative opinion of their looks that they have. This can, in turn, lead them to become introverted and to avoid social situations. In extreme instances, those suffering from body dysmorphic disorder may also undergo repeated cosmetic procedures that fail to deliver satisfaction.
Treatment for body dysmorphic disorder consists of cognitive behavioral therapy and/or medications, the most common being selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are commonly prescribed for depression because they inhibit the hormone serotonin from being taken up by brain neurons, which increases the concentration of serotonin that appears to balance mood.
At its most severe, a weight obsession can turn into an eating disorder, which the National Institutes of Health define as "an illness that causes serious disturbances to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating ... Severe distress or concern about body weight or shape may also characterize an eating disorder."
There are three primary types of eating disorders:
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an irrational fear of gaining weight, an extremely restricted caloric intake that leads to emaciation, a distorted body image and lack of menstruation in females.
Unlike anorexics, those who have bulimia nervosa will, in fact, eat large quantities of food. But these binging sessions are followed by a sense of guilt and subsequent extreme behaviors such as purging through the use of forced vomiting or laxatives and/or diuretics; excessive exercise; fasting; or any combination of these methods.
While most eating disorders result in unhealthily low body weights, with binge-eating disorder, the opposite may occur. That's because binge eaters lose control over the quantities they consume, but don't follow these sessions with purging, severe calorie restriction or excessive exercising. It's the most common of the eating disorders and because foods often associated with binge eating are high in fat and low in protein, complications like obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood cholesterol, high cholesterol, gall bladder disease and heart disease are often common.
Treatments for eating disorders include psychotherapy, nutrition education, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, and in the most severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary.
Who are picky eating adults? Learn more about ARFID and whether picky eating in adults is a disorder in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
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