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Starved for attention

Updated: 2012-09-05 09:42
By Liu Zhihua ( China Daily)

Starved for attention

Related: The thin & thick of it

Obsessing about body weight can be a debilitating, even fatal, condition, and it is affecting more and more of China's young. Liu Zhihua examines the worrying trend.

Obesity is a hot issue in China. In the last couple of years, the issue of fat has hogged the headlines time and time again. But even as China grows bigger around the waistline, there is another eating disorder that is plaguing many of its young - anorexia nervosa.

Anorexia is an eating disorder that can get in the way of a normal social life at best. At its worst, it can take away life.

Related: Anorexia is about mind over body

Experts say it's all in the mind, and they categorize anorexia as a symptom of mental imbalance, usually among teenage girls and young women. The fear of weight gain becomes pathological and the suppression of hunger and the avoidance of food can lead to metabolic and hormonal disorders.

Some victims may consequently die from malnutrition and the resulting organ failure.

"The incidence rate of anorexia nervosa has increased very quickly in China in the past decade, but society is apparently not ready to deal with it," says Zhang Darong, a mental illness specialist with Peking University No 6 Hospital, one of the most famous psychiatric hospitals in China.

"Most Chinese are unfamiliar with the term, and many patients hear about it for the first time when they are diagnosed."

Related: Overcoming the odds

Zhang was one of the first specialists in China on the eating disorder, since the early 1980s. According to her, there were only 52 eating disorder cases in the hospital from 1983 to 2001.

By 2006, the hospital was already dealing with the same number of patients in a year. These days, they see about 20 patients every month.

At the Shanghai Mental Health Center, the number of anorexia nervosa patients is four times higher than 10 years ago, according to reports by the city's Youth Daily newspaper.

"Anorexia nervosa is a 'fashion' disease," Zhang says. "In a society obsessed with thin figures and a market flooded with advertisements for slimming products, the disorder is almost inevitable."

The causes of anorexia nervosa are not specific, although studies have put forward the theory that starving feeds the vicious cycle of destructive eating patterns, caused by changes in the neuro-endocrine system.

The numbers get truly alarming when you realize that almost half of young Chinese girls go on diets to try to lose weight, and that the incidence rate for anorexia among dieters is eight times more likely, according to Zhang.

"I'm abnormal. You cannot imagine how much I regret it," says Guo Yue, 27, an inpatient at the Peking University No 6 Hospital. Her real name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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