Eating disorders are serious, sometimes life-threatening, mental illnesses that can affect individuals from all walks of life. There isn’t any age group, race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background that is safe from the debilitating effects of eating disorders. When an eating disorder takes hold of someone, it is often nearly impossible for that person to overcome the risky behaviors and distorted psychological thinking without professional help. Fortunately, an eating disorder doesn’t have to be a life sentence – it is a treatable disorder that, with help, individuals can manage and go on to develop a healthy relationship with food and with their own body image.
Many eating disorders start during adolescence, but doctors and psychologists are finding an increasing number of younger girls and boys and older women and men being diagnosed with the disorders. The sooner the diagnosis is made and treatment is begun, the better an individual’s chances are for a successful recovery.
What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders occur when individuals have distorted perceptions of their bodies and abnormal relationships with food. They are considered psychiatric conditions that require treatment. People with eating disorders often go to extremes, forcing their bodies to conform to their perception of ideal, which is typically unhealthy, or conversely, they cannot control their eating, resulting in suffering the social and medical consequences of obesity. These behaviors are frequently the sufferer’s only means of coping with some underlying psychological or psychiatric disorder. When left untreated, an eating disorder can lead to serious medical consequences, and may even be fatal.
Usually, an individual with an eating disorder also struggles with attempting to control their environment. They may also have an innate lack of emotional regulation. These characteristics, individually or combined, result in the extreme behaviors of eating disorders. The behaviors may range from not eating enough to live, to eating way too much, to binging on large quantities of food, then forcing themselves to purge the meal, so their body doesn’t absorb the calories. They may also exercise excessively or abuse drugs or alcohol to keep their weight down.
Women and girls are more likely than males to have eating disorders. However, the number of men and boys suffering from them is growing.
What Are the Different Types of Eating Disorders?
People suffer from several types of eating disorders. The behaviors of each type may overlap for some individuals. The three most common eating disorders are as follows:
- Binge Eating Disorder – This condition is sometimes considered a food addiction or overeating. Sufferers binge on food or consistently overeat in an attempt to manage their emotions. Obesity is common with this disorder, and there are serious health risks associated with obesity.
- Anorexia Nervosa – Sufferers with this condition will increasingly eat less and less food or completely stop eating, causing serious health consequences. These individuals are more likely to exercise excessively, take laxatives or diet pills, and die because of their eating disorders.
- Bulimia Nervosa – Individuals suffering from this type of eating disorder eat large amounts of food in short periods of time, then induce vomiting to empty their stomachs.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are illnesses that can result from a variety of causes. There isn’t just one definitive thing that causes eating disorders. Rather it is usually a combination of different risk factors that contribute to the development of the illness. The risk factors a person has for acquiring an eating disorder precede the actual development of symptoms. While risk factors do not necessarily mean that a person will ultimately suffer an eating disorder, they can be indicators that an individual will and shouldn’t be discounted.
Some risk factors can be indicators of any eating disorder, while others are specific to the onset of a specific disorder.
Risk factors for all eating disorders include:
- Dissatisfaction with body
- Attitude or view of a thin-ideal
- Constant dieting
- Lack of family or social support systems
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of coping skills
- Solitary eating
- Higher body mass index (BMI) in childhood
- Social problems or withdrawal
- History of other psychiatric disorders
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- History of being bullied or teased about weight
Risk factors for Anorexia Nervosa include:
- Low BMI
- Childhood eating conflicts or struggles around meals
- Complications at birth, including low birth weight, premature delivery, cephalohematoma, or being one of a multiple baby birth
Risk factors for Bulimia Nervosa include:
- Social pressure for thinness
- Dissatisfaction with body
- Dieting or fasting
- Thin-ideal internalization
- Substance use or abuse
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Other psychiatric symptoms
- Early adolescence
Risk factors for Binge Eating Disorder include:
- Social pressure to be thin
- Higher childhood BMI
- Low view of self-worth
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders
It isn’t uncommon for symptoms of eating disorders to change or evolve over time. About half of people diagnosed with the restrictive eating disorder anorexia later develop symptoms of bulimia. An individual who is primarily a binge eater may transition to restricting their food intake and develop anorexia later in life. Additionally, a person can recover from one type of eating disorder only to relapse later with a different one.
Some warning signs and symptoms may be noticeable to family and friends of someone struggling with an eating disorder. However, individuals in the throes of an eating disorder are often very good at hiding their symptoms, so it may be difficult to recognize until there are significant medical issues.
The following are some of the signs an individual who has an eating disorder may have:
- Constantly being on a diet
- Abusing food or exercise
- Excessive weight loss or weight gain
- Always eating differently than those around them
- Becoming stressed or anxious if they cannot exercise
- Withdrawing or isolating from friends and family
- Over-attentive to weight or weighing themselves frequently
- Going to the bathroom immediately after eating to throw up
- Abusing laxatives, diet pills, or performance-enhancing drugs
- Abusing drugs or alcohol, along with other listed symptoms
If you recognize some of these symptoms in yourself or someone you know, it’s important to seek eating disorder treatment. When left untreated, eating disorders can be fatal – heart failure and suicide are the two most common causes of death for people suffering from eating disorders. It’s estimated that as many as 20% of people who do not get help for eating disorders will die from their disorder.
Untreated eating disorders can have cause serious medical complications. It’s important to be familiar with the warning signs. If you think that you or someone you love is living with an eating disorder, you need to seek medical help as soon as possible. Most people with eating disorders cannot recover independently.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
Fortunately, eating disorders are treatable. It is estimated that as many as 60% of people with eating disorders are able to recover from their illness when they receive professional help. Inpatient treatment is often recommended for people with eating disorders because they will receive all the necessary treatment along with around-the-clock medical care and emotional support.
Armed with these tools and ongoing medical and mental health care, patients can develop a healthy relationship with food and find long-lasting recovery from drugs or alcohol.