Eating Disorders

This isn’t always easy to talk about. But it is so important, we have to. Eating disorders are serious medical conditions and they can even be fatal. This isn’t a scare tactic or fabrication to grab your attention. It’s a fact. And eating disorders don’t just effect women. 1 in 20 people at some time in their life will have an eating disorder, and that includes men. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institute of Mental Health have some great facts and helpful information that we want to share with you.

Types of Eating Disorders

When you are so preoccupied with food and weight that it becomes hard to focus on other important aspects of your life, it could be an early sign of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are a mental condition that results in both emotional and physical problems. Each condition has extreme food and weight issues, but each has unique symptoms.

Anorexia Nervosa. People who have anorexia will deny themselves of food and starve themselves due to their obsession with weight loss. They refuse to eat and will say they are not hungry. They may also binge and purge or exercise to the point of exhaustion to burn any calories they have consumed.

  • Emotional symptoms include social withdrawal, lack of emotion, irritability, or an inability to understand the seriousness of the situation. They may also be afraid of eating in front of others and develop food rituals such a chewing a certain number of times before swallowing. People with anorexia become obsessed with weighing themselves repeatedly. They have an extreme fear of gaining weight and refuse to be at a healthy or normal weight.
  • Physical symptoms include very low body fat levels, making a person look sick. Their body will slow down in order to conserve energy which can cause an irregular period or loss of menstruation completely. Constipation, dehydration, abdominal pain, irregular heart rhythms, low blood pressure, and problems sleeping could occur as well. People with anorexia often see themselves as overweight, even though they are extremely underweight. Symptoms that can occur over time include osteoporosis or osteopenia, anemia, brittle hair and nails, dry/ yellowish skin, growth of fine hair all over the body, brain damage, drop of internal body temperature, lethargy, and infertility.

Bulimia Nervosa. People who have bulimia feel out of control while binging on large amounts of food in short periods of time. This causes them to desperately try to rid themselves of the calories they have consumed. Common ways of getting rid of extra calories in people with bulimia include forced vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or excessive exercise. The binge eating and purging become a vicious cycle that controls many aspects of the person’s life and has a very negative effect emotionally and physically.

  • Emotional symptoms include poor body image leading to low self-esteem, feelings of being out of control, guilty or shameful feelings about eating, and withdrawal from friends and family.
  • Physical symptoms include damage to organs involved in eating and digesting food, dental carries and worn enamel on teeth from frequent vomiting, and acid reflux. Purging can result in dehydration that affects the body’s electrolyte levels, causing cardiac arrhythmia’s, heart failure and in extreme cases, death. Other symptoms include chronically inflamed and sore throat, swollen salivary glands. People with bulimia are typically of average weight or are slightly overweight.

Binge Eating Disorder. People with binge eating disorder lose control over their eating. They eat very large amounts of food in short periods of time. They also eat even when they are not hungry or after they are uncomfortably full and they eat very quickly. Following a binge, the person has feelings of embarrassment, disgust, depression, or guilt about their behavior. Unlike people with bulimia, those with binge eating disorder do not try to negate the calories they have consumed. Most people with binge eating disorder will feel distressed and ashamed about their eating and will therefore eat alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment. A person with binge eating disorder may be normal weight, overweight, or obese.

Risk Factors

Eating disorders are extremely complex and the causes are not completely known. Experts believe that a combination of factors may be involved in developing an eating disorder.

  • Genetics. People with parents or siblings with an eating disorder are at a higher risk of also developing an eating disorder, which suggests a genetic risk.
  • Environment. Most cultures place a strong emphasis on “thinness” as a sign of beauty for women and muscular development for men. This places a lot of pressure on people to achieve unrealistic standards.
  • Peer Pressure. Pressure in the forms of bullying or teasing because of size or weight can cause some people to develop an eating disorder. Physical or sexual abuse can also be a factor.
  • Emotional Health. People who have difficult relationships, perfectionism, and impulsive behaviors tend to have lower self-esteem, causing them to be more vulnerable to develop eating disorders. Times of changes such as puberty, starting college, getting divorced, or starting a new job can be stressors leading to the development of an eating disorder.
  • Age and Gender. Eating disorders are much more common during the teen years and early 20’s. Females are also statistically more likely to have eating disorders than males; however, they are less likely to be noticed or treated for one.
  • Vocations and Activities. Eating disorders are more prevalent in vocations and activities where body size is valued more such as modeling, gymnastics, wrestling, dancing, etc.

Treatment

Each person’s treatment will depend on the type of eating disorder, but adequate nutrition, reducing excessive exercise, and stopping purging behaviors are the foundations of treatment. Treatment plans are tailored to individual needs and may include medical care and monitoring, nutritional counseling, medications, and individual, group, and/or family psychotherapy.

If this hits home with you or if you are concerned about a friend, family member, classmate, coworker, neighbor, or  anyone in your life, talk to a healthcare professional. There are also many national organizations and agencies that you can contact for more information and support, such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or the National Eating Disorders Association Information and Referral Helpline 1-800-931-2237.

Sources: National Alliance on Mental Illness & National Institute of Mental Health

This information should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your physician.