What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is when a person struggles with eating food, however, symptoms are not limited to problems eating. The person may be unhappy with their body shape, size or weight which impacts their self-esteem, relationships and their ability to cope with life in general. It is a myth that a person must look very thin or thin before an eating disorder can be considered. While most people with an eating disorder are female, increasing numbers of males are also being diagnosed as are young people and children.
What causes an eating disorder?
It is still uncertain what causes an eating disorder. To date, evidence suggests that a variety of risk factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Different risk factors affect each individual. Some of these factors include:
Feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, self-criticism, feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism, the need to achieve highly and the need gain other people’s approval can make people vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.
Socio cultural factors
There is substantial pressure on women within Western society to conform to the ideal of being thin. Thinness is highly valued in our society. Beauty and fashion industries constantly influence women into thinking that being thin is beautiful, causing great pressure to diet in order to fit this image, even though for most women it is unnatural. The ‘muscle man’ image portrayed in cinema and magazines also influences boys into feeling they need to build up their muscles in order to be attractive to women, and to feel better about themselves.
Changes in life circumstances such as the breakdown of a relationship, changes in adolescence, or a history of child abuse can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. The eating disorder may be a person’s subconscious attempt to exert control over their life, when external things can seem uncontrollable. It’s been speculated, that anorexia is an attempt to avoid the physical changes associated with adulthood, particularly those related to sexuality.
Research suggests that hormonal or chemical imbalances in the body can play a role in the development of an eating disorder. Depression is commonly diagnosed in conjunction with an eating disorder, and anti-depressant medication may be useful.
What different types of eating disorders are there?
There are three main eating disorders. All have quite distinct and separate characteristics, however, they all involve problems with food. These problems include; limiting the types of food eaten and how much food is eaten, having to purge food soon after eating or losing control and eating too much.
- Anorexia Nervosa is characterised by severe weight loss due to self-imposed starvation. In an endless pursuit of thinness, those with anorexia live in constant fear of becoming fat and have a distorted view of their body.
- Bulimia is characterised by binge eating. This is uncontrollable consumption of large amounts of food, followed by inappropriate methods of preventing weight gain. Some of these methods include self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, fasting and excessive exercise.
- Compulsive Overeating is marked by impulsive binge eating without purging which results in rapid weight gain.
- Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified may be diagnosed when a person has a disordered eating pattern. For example, a person will only consume a very limited selection of foods, which can be harmful to their physical and mental health.
Do I, or someone I know, have an eating disorder?
Each eating disorder has distinct and separate symptoms, such as:
Symptoms for Anorexia Nervosa:
- Sudden, unexplained weight loss, leading to a body weight less than 85% of that expected for the person’s age, build and height
- total preoccupation with body shape and weight
- hiding food
- withdrawal from social situations
- skipping meals or eating alone
- setting high achievements and expectations of one’s self
- overactivity and excessive exercise
- excessive dieting
Symptoms for Bulimia Nervosa:
- frequent weight fluctuations
- eating large amounts of food followed by vomiting or laxative abuse
- withdrawal from social situations
Symptoms for Compulsive Overeating:
- eating large amounts of food without purging
- repeated attempts to lose weight
- inability to control food intake
What are the effects of having an eating disorder?
Eating disorders can have numerous effects on each individual. These include emotional, psychological and physical effects.
Emotional and Psychological Effects:
- feeling out of control
- suspiciousness and resistance to people trying to intervene
- obsessive thoughts and pre-occupations
- feelings of alienation and hopelessness
- compulsive behaviours and rituals around food
- suicidal ideas and feelings
- loss of motivation
these are different for each individual disorder:
- Chronic indigestion
- Chemical imbalances
- Severe sensitivity to the cold
- Loss or thinning of hair
- Skin and nail problems
- Growth of fine body hair called ‘lanugo’
- Severe weight loss
- Chronic sore throat
- Burning or rupturing of oesophagus
- Cessation of menstruation
- Strain on body organs
- Delay in puberty
- Decreased bone mineral density
- Swollen salivary glands
- Erasure of tooth enamel due to contact with stomach acid
- Weight fluctuation
- High blood pressure
- Heart strain
- Rapid weight gain
- Diseases related to overweight
What treatment is available?
Various forms of treatment are available. These include psychotherapy, counselling and self-help groups. In more extreme cases, hospitalisation and medication may be required.
The first step is for the person to recognise that they have a problem. They need encouragement and support to seek help.
If you think that you, or someone you know, might have an eating disorder, talking about it and getting help is important – even if you might find it embarrassing or insignificant. Trying to deal with an eating disorder on your own is very difficult.