Eating Disorders

Eating disorders (ED) are characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food. This psychological disorder affects people of different ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, body weight, and gender. According to the National Survey, it is estimated that around 20 million women and 10 million men will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, but there are risk factors:

  • Genetics – there appears to be a genetic predisposition that increases the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.
  • Biology – there are factors such as changes in brain chemicals that play a role in eating disorders.
  • Sociological – those having a parent diagnosed with an eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, or drug addiction are at a higher risk of also developing an eating disorder.
  • Peer pressure – those criticized for body shape and weight are more likely to develop an eating disorder.
  • Emotionality – those struggling with anxiety, low self-esteem, obsessive personality, perfectionism, impulsive behavior, depression, etc. are at a higher risk.
  • Career – those with a job requiring small body size, lean body fat or increased muscle mass are at a much higher risk. Examples would be ballet dancers, models, and athletes
  • Abuse, especially sexual abuse, is a huge risk factor for developing an eating disorder.

Most common eating disorders

There are several types of eating disorders but the three most common are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder due to the life-threatening effects of extreme weight loss and starvation on the brain and body.
People with anorexia generally view themselves as overweight even if they are dangerously underweight. They tend to monitor their weight constantly, avoid eating certain types of foods, severely restrict their calories, and often exercise excessively.

Symptoms include:

  • Distorted body image
  • Low self-esteem heavily influenced by a false perception of body weight and shape
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Rigid obsession with food
  • Being considerably underweight compared to people of similar age and height
  • Eating in public causes anxiety
  • Unhealthy methods to lose weight or limit calories such as diet aids, laxatives, vomiting after eating, excessive exercise or extreme fasting.
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and depression.

Anorexia nervosa can cause lifelong damage to the body. Over time, people with this disorder are very likely to experience thinning of their bones, infertility, brittle hair and nails, and even severe damage to the brain, heart, or other organs.

Bulimia Nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa may be slightly underweight, average weight, or overweight. They have frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food followed by forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors to compensate for the overeating. This cycle, called binging and purging, causes a huge strain on the digestive system. Bulimia is dangerous because it is hard to spot since the person may be average weight. The guilt, shame and extreme fear of weight gain cause anxiety, depression and a sense of being out of control. Like anorexia nervosa, individuals with bulimia are usually preoccupied with weight and body shape. They judge themselves harshly for self-perceived flaws and often feel the need to be punished.

Some of the symptoms will be:

  • Worn tooth enamel and decaying teeth due to the frequent contact with stomach acid.
  • Acid reflux, esophageal inflammation, and other gastrointestinal problems.
  • Intestinal problems due to laxative abuse.
  • Severe dehydration.
  • Hormonal imbalance.
  • Inflamed or sore throat.
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and depression.

Evidence of binge eating is the disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time or large quantities of empty wrappers and containers.

Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, signs and/or smells of vomiting, presence of wrappers or packages of laxatives or diuretics could be a sign of purging behaviors. Severe cases of bulimia can lead to a stroke or heart attack due to nutritional imbalances.

Binge Eating

People with binge eating disorder are on the opposite side of the spectrum from anorexia nervosa because it often leads to extreme weight gain or obesity. Individuals suffering from this disorder typically eat a large amount of food in a relatively short period of time and feel a lack of control during binges. They do not engage in the purging behavior of those affected by bulimia nervosa.

This type of disorder typically begins during adolescence and early adulthood and it’s believed to be the most common ED in the United States.

Some of the symptoms will be:

  • Eating even when you’re not hungry or are already full.
  • Eating a large quantity of food in a short period of time.
  • Eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment.
  • Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss.
  • Feeling a lack of control during episodes of binge eating.
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and depression.

Binge eating is dangerous because it leads to obesity which can lead to heart disease, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that usually require treatment. The depression, anxiety, fear, and stress associated with eating disorders can be overwhelming and debilitating. The damage done to the body if left untreated can be fatal. People with an eating disorder are often secretive and defensive about their eating habits and weight. They are often in denial about the severity of their disorder, so they resist treatment.

If you have an eating disorder or know someone that might have one, seek help from a specialized healthcare practitioner. The earlier an eating disorder is detected, the higher are the chances for recovery.

The first step towards recovery is getting a diagnosis. Treatment plans are tailored to individual needs and may include psychotherapy (individual, group, or family), medical care and monitoring, nutritional counseling, and medications. Therapy is usually more effective before the disorder becomes chronic; however, people with long-standing eating disorders can, and do recover.

If you or a loved one are concerned about having an eating disorder, fight the feelings of shame and seek professional help as soon as possible. You are worth fighting for!