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news: nc woman recovers from eating disorders at 43

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Title/Topic: NC Woman Recovers From Eating Disorders at 43
Posted On: 5/31/2009
May 31 2009 (Associated Press) – Winston-Salem, N.C. – As a first-generation American and the daughter of Polish immigrants, Teresa Burnette of High Point became caught up in the pursuit of perfection.

“A lot of immigrants want their children to be perfect Americans,” she said. She felt pressure to look thin and fit. But her parents unwittingly stood in her way by constantly pressing food on her.

“Eat!” they told her. “Eat!”

The Winston-Salem Journal reported that both had nearly starved during World War II. Her mother was held in a prison camp in Siberia, and her father was in a camp in Germany. When Burnette was growing up, she was always exposed to enormous amounts of food.

She developed anorexia at 17.

She exercised constantly and wouldn’t even put lotion on her skin. She feared that the skin would “plump up” and make her look bigger. At 5 foot 5, she weighed about XXX pounds*. In college, she couldn’t take being constantly hungry, so she started to binge and purge.

So far, her story seems fairly typical for people who suffer from anorexia and bulimia. Most people link the disorder with youth. But Burnette became part of a group of women who suffer from anorexia and bulimia in middle age. Now 49, Burnette remained bulimic until age 43, when she sought professional help.

“This is a new phenomenon and it’s on the increase,” said Debra Benfield, a clinical nutritionist who treats eating and body-weight problems. Benfield was one of the speakers at a free seminar on eating disorders May 28 at Forsyth Medical Center’s conference center.

Benfield described two reasons that women suffer from eating disorders in midlife. In one instance, women who have had eating disorders at one time and feel that they have recovered may relapse during times of transition, such as going through a divorce, re-entering the work force, going back to school or seeing their children leave home.

“These things tend to happen during midlife,” Benfield said. “They end up searching for ways to cope, abusing that eating-disorder behavior to get through hard times.”

The other group is made up of women who are trying to fight the aging process by remaining in control of their bodies. They think that they can stave off “middle-aged spread.”

“In our culture, remaining cute throughout midlife is a problem,” Benfield said. “Our mothers didn’t stay cute. It was OK to look like a mother when you reached 50.” Now, she said, magazines and other media promote role models that don’t fit our physiology. The average woman puts on 15 pounds at midlife, weight that is actually beneficial. The extra weight decreases the risk of broken bones and helps women fight illnesses.

But this natural process is in conflict with cultural beliefs, Benfield said. Women who want to look at 50 the way they did at 30 sometimes do so by depriving themselves of food and exercising compulsively.

She also said that the increase of obesity in our population parallels the increase in eating disorders, “which makes sense when you think about human behavior.”

“We tend to overreact, to get too extreme,” Benfield said.

Burnette kept her eating disorder secret from family and friends, and for years she kept her weight under XXX pounds*. Dinner always triggered a bout of vomiting.

“I couldn’t sit still after dinner with food in my stomach,” she said. She would find a way to get to a restroom and throw up, then open a window, light a match or spray something scented, such as perfume or hair spray, to hide the smell. Over time, she learned that certain foods made vomiting easier.

When she became pregnant with her son, now 13, she let go of the worries about her weight. She gained probably XX pounds*, she said.

“I felt good about myself. It’s the first time I remember eating something and not feeling guilty about it.”

But once her son was born, she started dieting again. Finally, though, she had enough. She told her husband. She told her family. She went to a counselor for help.

Burnette is now an average-size woman, neither thin nor fat. She no longer weighs herself, and she shops in stores where sizing is general, such as “small,” ”medium” and “large.” She makes sure that she doesn’t complain about her size in front of her son, so that he won’t get unhealthy ideas about weight.

She hasn’t had a relapse, “in six years, four months and 11 days.” She is not tempted to vomit. “If I do,” she said, “I’ll have to start back at Day One.”

Her message to anyone struggling with an eating disorder: “Tell somebody right away. Once it comes out, it’s the biggest relief.”


* Weights removed by Pale Reflections

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