Eating disorders are not just about food, they are complex mental health conditions revolving around an unhealthy relationship with food. They are serious psychological conditions not to be taken lightly or trivialized in any way. For some, it involves limiting food intake while others involve uncontrollable eating. People with eating disorders take extreme measures to control their weight and excessively limit their caloric intake through methods like excessive exercise, using laxatives or diet aids or vomiting after eating. Most eating disorders involve focusing too much on weight, body shape, and food resulting in dangerous eating behaviours which can harm the heart, digestive system, bones, teeth, and mouth and lead to other diseases. Here are a few common ones:
1. Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia occurs when someone does not eat enough in an effort to maintain a healthy body weight because of an intense fear of gaining weight or feeling fat. People with anorexia have a distorted perception of their body weight or shape. It is most common in adolescents and young adults and up to ten times more common in women than men.
Anorexia manifests differently in different people. Some eat at only specific times of the day or use specific cutlery. They obsess over nutrition labels and food measurements. They may eat alone or constantly make excuses for not eating and may restrict their caloric intake to the extent that they develop health issues including stomach problems, hair loss, brittle bones, dizziness, and fainting. People with anorexia can also die from the disorder by suicide or get to the point of deadly starvation.
2. Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder. People suffering from bulimia have episodes of bingeing and purging that involve feeling a lack of control over their eating. Many people suffering from bulimia restrict their food intake during the day which leads to the cycle of eating and purging.
During the bingeing episode, people eat excessive amounts of food in a short time and then during the purging compensate for their eating by ridding themselves of the food in unhealthy ways. People use methods such as forced vomiting and laxatives to purge themselves. Evidence of bingeing includes the disappearance of large amounts of food in a short period of time and lots of wrappers and containers indicating consumption of large amounts of food. Evidence of purging behaviours include frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, signs and/or smells of vomiting and the presence of wrappers and or packaging of laxatives or diuretics.
3. Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder, also referred to as compulsive overeating is characterized primarily by periods of compulsive, uncontrolled, continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. People may eat quickly or eat more food than intended even when they are not hungry and continue eating long after they feel full. In this case, there may be no purging but there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets and often feelings of shame, guilt or self-hatred after a binge. The shame and embarrassment can lead to more eating in secret to hide bingeing. A new round of bingeing usually occurs at least once a week.
Causes of eating disorders
1. Biological factors
There is evidence that eating disorders can be genetic. A history of dieting can also lead to the development of binge eating or bulimia.
2. Psychological factors
There are personality traits that are linked to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder including perfectionism.
Obsessive tendencies and a feeling of lack of control in your life can lead to eating disorders where you seek to control the one thing you can control which is food.
Poor body image can lead to controlling food intake in order to attain your ideal body. Body image refers to how one feels about their body and feeling such as being born in the wrong gender or feeling overweight or disproportionate contribute to a poor body image.
Many people with anxiety and/or depression also have eating disorders.
Teasing and bullying about weight are a common reason why people develop eating disorders.
A history of trauma and abuse can lead to an eating disorder.
Lack of friendship and societal support are also contributing factors.
There are social and cultural pressures to be thin with the media constantly reinforcing this largely western ideal of thinness. In fact, in societies with little or no western influence, eating disorders appear to be virtually non-existent.
The good news is that people can seek treatment and they should. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Most treatment involves a nutritionist, a primary care physician, and mental health professional. The physician/doctor to monitor the physical changes and problems, the psychologist or mental health professional to address the underlying thoughts and emotions, and a nutritionist to develop a plan to maintain a healthy weight moving forward.
It’s important that people always keep in mind that anyone with an eating disorder is suffering. In many cases, it is this pain and suffering that caused it all in the first place. They are already dealing with feelings of guilt and shame and really do not need other people to pile onto that. Compassion, empathy and help are what they need from us.
As our combined consciousness of mental health issues increases as well as our concern for each other, here’s a great piece on how to spot depression in loved ones.