Eating disorders are complex medical conditions that involve more than just an individual's relationship with food.
In fact, the majority of eating disorders are less about what a person eats and more how they see themselves. An individual will obsess over their weight, body shape, how much food they consume, and how frequently they do so.
What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders involve many compulsive behaviors. From dangerous calorie counting to extreme diet and exercise to harmful bingeing and purging (vomiting) of food, practically all instances of an eating disorder can starve a person of precious nutrients and lead to life-threatening physical and psychological problems.
According to recent statistics, approximately 30 million people suffer from some form of eating disorder. Those numbers include both children and adults and individuals from all backgrounds and genders.
More troubling, is that roughly every hour, a person will die in the U.S. as a result of or complications directly from an eating disorder.
Part of the difficulty in diagnosing and treating an eating disorder is that it can be both a mental and physical illness. How an eating disorder affects a particular individual varies greatly, and treatment that might work for one person could be ineffective for another.
An eating disorder could also develop from an underlying illness or mental condition (comorbidity). People who suffer from major eating disorders may also suffer from depression, PTSD, or have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are five major types of eating disorders in the U.S. The two most common and widely known are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Along with binge eating disorder, these represent the bulk of the 30 million cases of eating disorders across the nation.
Here's a summary of each eating disorder:
More commonly referred to as anorexia, this form of eating disorder involves several extremes. Individuals will excessively count or limit caloric intake, exercise constantly, or use laxatives, vomiting or crash diets to maintain exceedingly low, and unhealthy body weight.
The obsession to achieve and maintain such an extraordinarily low body weight stems from either the fear of weight gain, fear of being overweight, or a damaging perception of weight. Anorexia may result in serious health concerns and can lead to death, often caused by self-induced starvation.
Similar to anorexia, bulimia nervosa, or simply bulimia, most often revolves around an individual's obsession with or fear of weight or certain body types. Unlike anorexia, bulimia involves periods of binge eating and then purging the food.
Bulimia manifests itself in several ways. Most frequently, a bulimic person is trying to gain control over their eating habits or deal with shame and guilt from excessive eating. Fear of being overweight or your body shape can also prove a catalyst for bouts of binging and purging. Bulimia is a serious life-threatening condition which can take a painful toll on the body.
Binge Eating Disorder
With binge eating disorder, an individual frequently overeats, resulting in their feeling little to no control over their eating. This tends to break down into a habit of eating far too quickly, general overeating, or eating when not hungry and then experiencing shame or disgust with themselves afterward.
Unlike anorexia or bulimia, which are accompanied by additional compulsions like extreme exercising or purging, binge eating disorder is limited to the act of overeating.
Rumination disorder involves regular regurgitation of food after eating. What sets this disorder apart is the regurgitation is mostly unintentional. It's also not the result of an underlying medical condition.
A few other distinctions include the regurgitation triggered by something other than gagging or nausea. In some instances, the regurgitated food is chewed and swallowed for a second time. Commonly found in infants or those with disabilities, rumination disorder can lead to malnutrition.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Most closely tied to an individual's direct relationship with food, this disorder may lead to nutritional deficiencies due to an avoidance of certain foods. Whether it's the smell, taste, color, or texture, an individual avoids foods they either fear or are uncomfortable with, instead of the impact the food has on the body.
While it may appear as a case of picky eating, there are genuine health risks involved with restrictive food intake, including unhealthy, large scale weight loss.
More Than Just Food
Plenty of misconceptions surround eating disorders. Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding is that an eating disorder, as the name would suggest, is mainly about food.
While an individual's relationship with food does play a role, eating disorders arise from many factors. Some of the main reasons a person could develop an eating disorder include:
Family History and Biological Factors
Eating disorders are more likely to occur in people with parents or a sibling who've had an eating disorder. Biologics may also play a role, especially in those that possess genes or an excess or change in brain chemicals that increase their susceptibility to an eating disorder.
Poor Self Esteem
How a person develops poor self-esteem is a broad topic. In the case of developing an eating disorder, it can often stem from growing up in an overbearing or controlling household, where freedom of expression is severely limited. Exposure to psychological abuse centering on their appearance or their worth as a person can lead to eating disorders. If someone has been the victim of sexual abuse, there is a much higher risk for them to develop an eating disorder.
Societal Pressure to Maintain a Certain Weight
This can manifest itself in several ways, including a job that requires a certain "look," believing or adhering to cultural views on what is and isn't attractive, or striving to achieve a misconceived notion of perfection. In many cases, this distorted reach for flawlessness leads a person to excessive dieting, exercising, binging and purging, or even starvation.
Mental Health Concerns
Many times, individuals who develop eating disorders possess a history of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, or obsessive or compulsive tendencies.
Experiencing sudden life-changing events or dealing with difficult, stressful situations, whether at work or in their personal life, can lead to dramatic changes in a person's eating habits. These changes often find an individual turning to food as a coping mechanism, which makes them more susceptible to developing a disorder.
Signs and Complications
Identifying if a loved one has an eating disorder can prove incredibly difficult, even for a well-trained eye. Further complicating this is the person suffering from the eating disorder may not acknowledge or admit that they have a problem.
However, most individuals with an eating disorder are susceptible to patterned behaviors. There are signs to indicate a change towards an unhealthy lifestyle or habits. Here are a few of the warning signs to look out for when someone has an eating disorder:
- Changes in eating patterns or unusual behaviors revolving around when and how a person eats, including:
- Skipping meals
- Concocting reasons for not eating or avoiding certain foods
- Adhering to highly restrictive diets, or an obsession with healthy eating
- Preparing their own meals instead of eating what's offered at a family dinner or gathering of friends
- Overeating, even when not hungry
- Hiding or being untruthful about when and what they eat, or eating in secret
- Binge eating, or binge eating and then excusing themselves to use the restroom
- Withdrawal from friends and family; avoidance of regular social activities
- Unhealthy focus on body image, including weight and body shape; continually pointing out their perceived flaws
- Only talks about weight, weight loss, or subjects related to being fat and dieting; expresses continual self-loathing regarding their eating habits
- Adheres to a strict weight loss regimen that includes excessive exercise and/or weight loss or diet supplements or laxatives
- Visual indications of an eating disorder include:
- Sudden changes in weight, particularly a dramatic loss of weight
- Cold, blotchy or yellowing skin; swelling of feet or hands
- Calluses or cuts across the knuckles (from induced vomiting)
- Dry skin or dry and brittle nails
- Constant complaints of stomach issues, including cramps, constipation, acid reflux, and related ailments
- Dental problems such as discoloration of teeth or complaints of tooth pain and sensitivity
Why is it so important to identify if someone close to you has an eating disorder? Eating disorders can cause irreversible physical and mental harm to an individual, many of which can ultimately be life-threatening.
Some of the more serious complications include:
- Severe health issues with weakened immune systems and bodily functions stemming from malnutrition
- Stunted growth or development
- Withdrawal from friends and family; problems maintaining healthy, meaningful relationships and performance issues at work or school
- Depression and anxiety, with more severe cases leading to self-harm or suicidal thoughts and behaviors
Untreated, an eating disorder can result in an individual's death.
Due to the complexities of eating disorders, taking preventative steps to avoid them can be difficult. This proves especially true when helping a loved one or raising a child to develop a positive self-image and healthy eating habits.
When it comes to children, adopt the following strategies:
Talk to your child about how they are feeling and monitor their exposure to influences that promote harmful ideas about eating or self-image. You don't want to lay the blame solely at the feet of media and culture. The greater context you can provide a child for what is and isn't a healthy lifestyle, the better choices they will make on their own.
Promote Healthy Habits at Home
It's not just outside influences that can impact a child's view of eating behaviors and self-image. Do you diet excessively at home? Or constantly concern yourself with how you look and what you eat? The majority of habits develop through a child doing as their parents or guardians do. Teach them good habits versus reinforcing bad ones.
Eat together as a family, discussing the good and bad of the different foods you eat. Avoid dieting around them and steer clear of criticizing your body or weight when your child is nearby. Children are sponges. They soak up the information we give them. Ensure they absorb positive messages by promoting positive self-esteem, respect, and acceptance.
Seek Out Advice from Your Physician
If you have concerns that a child might show early signs of an eating disorder, don't hesitate to talk to their doctor. Regular visits are critical as a medical professional can spot minor changes in a child's health that may be indicators for a larger problem. They can also engage with the child in a manner that reveals differences in the child's eating patterns or behavior that a parent might overlook.
When it comes to older adults and loved ones, providing assistance can be more complicated. It's critical to, first and foremost, provide them support and compassion. Avoid any judgment and show concern for them and their wellbeing.
You may not prevent or cure their illness, but a sympathetic ear might be enough to compel them to seek out professional treatment or help. For an individual with an eating disorder, that first step is critical. Not only will it lead them towards a healthy lifestyle, but it could be the step that saves their life.