Health Watch -- Eating Disorders

Health Watch is a Public Service of the  Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

The struggle to be thin can wreak havoc on a teenager’s life.

Although there’s often a lot of focus on the epidemic of obesity among American youth, the other extreme is equally dangerous. About one in 100 American teenage girls suffers from anorexia nervosa, a disorder in which victims literally starve themselves – sometimes to death. These girls also may struggle with bulimia nervosa, which is binging on food and then purging by vomiting, using laxatives or exercising excessively.

Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and Children’s Medical Center Dallas are taking on these and other related eating disorders with an interdisciplinary treatment center.

What makes a girl want to starve herself? Dr. Stephanie Setliff, the UT Southwestern psychiatrist who runs the inpatient center, says there’s no single cause, but rather a combination of biological, cultural, personality and social factors. Girls may see media images of extremely thin women who are held up as ideals of beauty and try to emulate that. Girls also may be seeking some sort of physical perfection or trying to demonstrate control over their own bodies. Others may be trying to avoid growing up and the body changes that come with maturity. Some girls may just have such low self esteem that they feel they don’t deserve to eat. Often, the illness is a coping mechanism gone horribly wrong. It may be triggered by some kind of crisis, trauma or particularly painful life experience.