Pro-Anorexia Websites Send Convoluted and Deadly Messages, Study Finds

If ever there was an example of words that could kill, a "pro-ana" or "pro-mia" website could be a contender.

"Ana" stands for anorexia and just as the name implies, the "pro-ana" and "pro-mia" (for bulimia) websites encourage starving yourself and explain how to do it.

Johanna Kandel, 31, said she used to read memoirs of anorexics to feed her obsession with losing weight. Now nine years after her decade-long battle with anorexia, she sees the same inclinations in people visiting "pro-ana" sites.

If you are looking for resources to get treatment for eating disorders click here.

Pro-Anorexia Sites Deadly Messages
Pro-Anorexia Sites' Deadly Messages

"It's making it a lot more accessible, not only to get tips ... they actually get supported by one another to become more engrossed in their eating disorder," said Kandel, who founded the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.

"Although you feel cannot recover, you absolutely can and you deserve to," said Kandel.

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Between 5 to 10 percent of individuals with anorexia will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Psychiatrists are so worried by pro-ana sites, they would rather not see news about them at all. But the sites are so pervasive that doctors feel they must visit and study them to treat patients.

A new study that looked at 180 active pro-ana and pro-mia sites found convoluted messages of alluring emotional support and deadly advice.

As expected, 83 percent of the 180 sites openly advised visitors on how to start or continue an eating disorder, according to the study published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

Obvious instructions, such as BMI calculators and calorie counters were common, but so was indirect encouragement. Eighty-five percent of the sites included "Thinspiration" sections meant to visually encourage eating disorders through pictures of bony models.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, estimated that 1 to 3 percent of all women will become anorexic at some point in their lives and 2 to 8 percent of all women will become bulimic at some point in their lives.

Anorexia -- Rare but Deadly

Diekman, who is the immediate past president of the American Dietetic Association, estimated that 2 to 5 percent of men have eating disorders.

"A lot of these websites get struck down, but then they pop up elsewhere," said Dina L.G. Borzekowski, lead author of the study and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Borzekowski said the general population may find the sites "extreme" and dismiss them, but from the point of view of a vulnerable teenager with a disorder, the sites could look enticing.

Trouble comes, Borzekowski said, when "someone's frequenting these sites, and getting their social support from these websites."

If you are looking for resources to get treatment for eating disorders click here.

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