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uni'wissen 01-2012_ENG

Anorexia patients and healthy women were asked to look at themselves in the mirror while an eye tracker attached to a helmet recorded their eye movements. The result: The former looked longer and more frequently at parts of their body they were not satisfied with (scene reenacted). Photo: Kunz “Although there are clear criteria for ­distinguishing pathological from healthy behavior, the transitions are often difficult to pinpoint” Vanilla ice cream, an entire family-sized carton. Ten wieners with globs of mustard. Fast. Hur­ riedly. Chocolate cookies, bread with liver pâté, bananas. It could also be oversalted oatmeal gruel – no matter what she stuffs in her mouth, the young lady doesn’t like it. She wolfs down food unchewed, occasionally taking a gulp of milk so it’s easier to heave it back up later. She was actually supposed to go out to the movies with two friends tonight, but she cancelled in order to be alone. Besides, the two have been asking uncomfortable questions lately: “I heard you retching in the bathroom earlier. Are you sick?” “You go to the toilet a lot. Everything alright?” Going on two-hour eating binges without ­enjoying any of it, deliberate vomiting, gradually cutting oneself off from family and friends: These are typical symptoms of people who suffer from bulimia nervosa – also called binge-purge syn­ drome – explains Brunna Tuschen-Caffier. The professor of clinical psychology and psycho­ therapy at the University of Freiburg has been researching eating disorders for 20 years. She and her colleagues won the Christina Barz Prize in 2011 for their fundamental research on the topic. The team found out what mechanisms contribute to the development and perpetuation of eating disorders. The scientists collected and analyzed data in studies and projects for over a four-year period. Now the implementation phase is about to begin: They want to apply their find­ ings to clinical practice, to improve therapies for eating disorders – a task that will occupy them for the next several years. Women Are a Risk Group In addition to bulimia nervosa, the most promi­ nent forms of eating disorders are anorexia ­nervosa, characterized by the desire to lose weight by refusing to eat, and binge eating disorder, which has only been recognized as a distinct condition since the mid 1990s. People with this disorder suffer from attacks of compulsive over­ eating. “But in contrast to bulimia nervosa the countermeasures are missing, like vomiting or dieting,” says Tuschen-Caffier. What all three eating disorders have in common is a deep-seated dissatisfaction with one’s own body and the seemingly inseparable relationship between self-esteem, figure, and weight – a mechanism the psychologist says even healthy women can be susceptible to: “In Western culture women often tend to define their self-worth through physical appearance and slimness. They are a risk group for eating disorders.” Over 90 percent of the one to three percent of Germany’s population afflicted with eating disorders are female. “Although there are clear criteria for distin­ guishing pathological from healthy behavior, the transitions are often difficult to pinpoint,” says the expert. Even healthy women have a feeding 29