Anorexia and obesity are commonly looked at as polar opposites, however, there are more similarities than what meets the eye. These two are just two ends of a linked spectrum of disordered eating; they are not distinct, rather, they are mirror images of each other. Anorexic and obese brains do differ, however, but they are both affected by things that cause disordered eating.
“Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss (or lack of appropriate weight gain in growing children); difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age, and stature; and, in many individuals, distorted body image.” (NEDA, 2018) People with this dangerous eating disorder generally restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat.
Some people with Anorexia also exercise constantly, clear out their systems via vomiting and laxatives, and or eat way too much in a short time. One common misconception about anorexia is that you do not need to be severely underweight to struggle with the disorder. Anorexia can be found in people regardless of sex, age, race and ethnicity, and although you cannot see if a person is struggling with this disorder by looking at them, there are emotional and behavioral signs and symptoms that can be seen.
Some that can be found in a person with the disorder can be: rapid weight loss, dressing in layers to hide this rapid weight loss or to stay warm, denies feeling hunger and denies seriousness of being underweight, will demonstrate an extreme or intense fear of gaining weight and/or seems to be preoccupied with weight, food, calories, etc. A person with anorexia will make consistent excuses to avoid situations involving food and seem shy, uncomfortable or concerned about eating in public, have little inclination to attend social events, and withdraws from usual friends and activities, and will isolate themselves.
On the flip side, there are emotional and behavioral signs of obesity as well. “Obesity is a complex disorder involving an excessive amount of body fat. Obesity isn’t just a cosmetic concern. It increases your risk of diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure” (Mayo Clinic, 2015) When you are obese, your overall quality of life may be diminished. In people that are overweight, you will often find feelings of shame, rejection, low self-esteem and depression. So many emotional and behavioral factors can lead to obesity, including: inactivity, unhealthy diet, smoking, lack of sleep, medications. People that are suffering from obesity will commonly experience depression, disability, sexual problems, shame and guilt, isolation, and experience lower work achievement.
As well as emotional and behavioral signs of both of these disorders, there are of course, physical signs as well. Of course, the signs and the severity of them will differ depending on the person, however, in an individual with anorexia nervosa you can definitely count on a cloudy mind, meaning: difficulties concentrating, dizziness, fainting, and trouble thinking straight, or just acting overall differently than the individual usually would. People with this disorder will have thinning hair, dry skin, brittle nails, yellow tinted skin and cold hands and feet. Sometimes these signs can be difficult to recognize at first.
However, when it comes to obesity, the physical signs are usually pretty visible and generally recognizable. Although, “Some definitions stipulate that obesity occurs when the amount of body fat impairs the individual’s health or threatens to shorten his or her life expectancy” (Signs of Obesity, 2019). The main physical sign of obesity is excessive body fat, meaning that the person’s body mass index is of 30 or greater- a normal BMI (body mass index) is between 18 and 25. If your BMI ranges between 25 to 30, you are overweight. If your BMI surpasses 30, you are considered obese.
Along with both disorders come risk factors. Eating disorders are complex conditions that can stem from all sorts of combinations of behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, interpersonal and social factors. Because of this, there are multiple complex health risks as well. There are psychological, sociocultural and biological risk factors to take into account. We’ve already touched on some of the psychological factors of anorexia nervosa, including depression, anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive compulsive behaviors.
But along with that, come socio cultural risks as well which have a large part to do with today’s media and the ideals we have of being beautiful in this society. These “ideal” bodies are very limited shapes and sizes and we have this emphasis on dieting while we promote this thin ideal. And of course, biological factors play a role in the development of disordered eating. If you have a family member with an eating disorder, or have a history of anxiety or depression, you will be more likely to develop disordered eating.
Risk factors of obesity can come from an array of things as well. In this case, it isn’t as much about family background and society as much as it is knowledge about nutrition and your physical activity level. However, many social and environmental factors can be a contributor to the decision to be active. Something that plays a large role in risk factors regarding obesity is socioeconomic issues. “Research has linked social and economic factors to obesity. Avoiding obesity is difficult if you don’t have safe areas to exercise. Similarly, you may not have been taught healthy ways of cooking, or you may not have money to buy healthier foods.” (Mayo Clinic, 2015).
Overall, anorexia and obesity definitely have some similarities. Both of these can be caused by disordered eating, both can cause serious harm and health risks. These two are obviously two ends of the spectrum, however they both can be media driven, accompanied by body dissatisfaction, and they both can cause weight-related teasing, and mood disorders or general feelings of unhappiness within oneself. Three things that anorexia and obesity both do have in common is that they do in fact both come with emotional and behavioral signs, physical signs, and risk factors.
Contrastingly, the two differ in what these signs entail. They come with different behavioral and emotional signs, with the signs for anorexia being more complex mental signs while people struggling with obesity suffer more from low self esteem and confidence issues. The physical signs differ as well, with anorexia physical signs being severe weight loss, and on the flip side obesity is the sign of severe weight gain.
The risk factors for anorexia are more due to family background regarding mental health, while the obesity risk factors stem from nutrition and physical activity. So, even though these two share that they have emotional, behavioral and physical signs, as well as risk factors, they differ in the fact that they entail different things within the signs.
As any person struggling with obesity or an eating disorder will tell you (and I can speak from experience here), there is much more to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight than just changing activity levels and portion sizes- careful personalized treatment is often needed. However, on a societal level, we need to take responsibility, and provide our own healthy messages that outweigh those of the advertising industry.
Rather than extremes becoming the normal way of things, it would be a welcome relief to pick up a favorite magazine and see images of women at a healthy weight along with newsprint that makes you feel better about yourself rather than feeling negatively about your own body or, reading about guidelines for moderation rather than short-lived diets that encourage you to go to the extremes. Happy mediums are difficult to attain.
But, the rates of problems at both ends of the weight spectrum tell us that the messages of moderation and health are taking the messages to the extremes. Reversing the obesity epidemic and the rising rates of eating disorders require societal change, and making moderation an attractive goal is a good first step. We need to encourage each other and lift each other up, rather than tear each other down and compare ourselves to one another. That, is the only way we can make a serious, long lasting change.
- “Anorexia Nervosa.” National Eating Disorders Association, 28 Feb. 2018, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/anorexia.
- “Obesity.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 June 2015, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obesity/symptoms-causes/syc-20375742.
- “Overweight & Obesity Statistics.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 Aug. 2017, www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/overweight-obesity.
- “Signs of Obesity & Symptoms of Unhealthy Eating.” Structure House, 2019, www.structurehouse.com/obesity/signs-symptoms-effects/.