Eating Disorders: An Overview

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Eating disorders are behavioral and mental health conditions related to a persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and distressing thoughts and emotions. This could impact one’s physical and mental health.

Most eating disorders result in an increased focus on weight, body shape, and size. These thoughts and behaviors can significantly impact the body’s ability to get appropriate nutrition.

Eating disorders may cause significant medical conditions because of the physical nature of their defining symptoms leading to one of the highest mortality rates in any mental disorder. That is why it is critical that for official information or for help regarding diagnosis, it is imperative to speak with a mental health professional.

Eating disorders often develop during teenage or young adult years. However, they can also develop at other ages. In the United States, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men have or have had an eating disorder at some point in their life.

With the proper professional attention and treatment, one can return to healthier eating habits and sometimes reverse serious complications caused by the eating disorder.

Suppose you or your loved ones are dealing with an eating disorder. In that case, you may require the intervention of medical and psychological professionals like those available at BetterHelp.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Researchers believe that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, social, and psychological factors. Some of them include:

Genetics – Researchers have placed a significant emphasis on the importance of genetics in eating disorders. Some research also shows that approximately 50 to 80% of the risk of developing an eating disorder can be genetic; however, it is also hugely impacted by the environment. Twin and adoption studies have shown that even after being adopted by different families, both twins tend to develop eating disorders rather than just one of them.

Belonging to a family with a history of eating disorders can increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. A part of this increased predisposition could also be due to the modeling of eating disorder-linked behaviors within a family. These findings do not suggest a single eating disorder gene or even that genes could cause eating disorders. Some individuals may inherit traits such as perfectionism, anxiety, fear, or moodiness, all associated with developing an eating disorder.

Psychological Factors – Neuroticism, perfectionism, and impulsivity are three personality traits often linked to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Such characteristics could lead to an increased desire to look a certain way and adopt unhealthy eating behaviors. These personality traits could be developed or even passed on genetically.

Significant life changes can cause emotional distress and anxiety, making one more susceptible to eating disorders. These times of transition, including changing jobs, the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or abuse, can also trigger an eating disorder. Psychological issues like anxiety, depression, low self esteem can result in the start or continued unhealthy eating behaviors.

Socio-Cultural Factors – Social and cultural factors can play an essential role in understanding their body image and treating themselves.

Exposure to media, peers, and parental messages – contribute to whether a person idealizes thinness and engages in social comparison. These two factors (idealization and social comparison) may potentially lead to poor body image and various eating disorders.

The pressure to be thin could stem from the cultural preference for thinness, as shown in movies, television shows, or social media. In fact, certain eating disorders appear to be almost nonexistent in cultures that have not been exposed to Western ideals of thinness. The need for affirmation could drive one to diet and sometimes even starve.

In specific communities, appearance is often seen as a status symbol. Coaches, parents, and professionals in areas like athletics, modeling, acting, etc. may inadvertently contribute to eating disorders by encouraging weight loss.

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder which is characterized by abnormally low body weight. One may experience an intense fear of gaining weight and has a distorted perception of weight. Individuals may place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts to significantly interfere with their lives. It generally develops during adolescence or young adulthood and tends to affect more women than men.

To prevent weight gain or continue losing weight, people with anorexia drastically restrict the amount of food they eat. They may even try to control their caloric intake by vomiting after eating or misusing laxatives, diet aids, or exercising excessively. No matter how much weight they lose, they continue to fear weight gain because they have begun to equate thinness with self-worth. They may also face difficulty while eating in public and exhibit a strong desire to control their environment, limiting their ability to be spontaneous.

Many people are unaware that anorexia nervosa can also be diagnosed in individuals with larger bodies. The eating disorder can be highly unhealthy and sometimes even a life-threatening method to cope with emotional problems.

Anorexia can be categorized into two subtypes :

  • Restricting type – Individuals who try to lose weight solely through dieting, fasting, or excessive exercise.
  • Binge eating and purging type – Individuals may binge on large amounts of food or eat very little. In both cases, after they eat, they purge using laxatives or diuretics or exercising excessively.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

The physical signs and symptoms include :

  • Being considerably underweight compared with people of similar age and height
  • Severe loss of muscle mass, bone density, and increased risk of fractures.
  • Fatigue and exhaustion accompanied by lightheadedness or dizziness and low blood pressure.
  • Low body temperature with cold hands and feet or, possibly, hypothermia.
  • Bloated or upset stomach and even constipation
  • Dry skin, swollen hands, and feet, along with hair loss
  • Loss of menstruation or less frequent periods and sometimes even infertility.
  • Bad breath and tooth decay for those who vomit frequently.

The behavioural symptoms include :

  • Assessment of one’s own body weight and size frequently.
  • Regularly or frequently speaking about being fat or overweight.
  • Denying feeling hungry or avoiding mealtimes.
  • Developing food rituals, such as eating foods in a specific order
  • Cooking for others without eating
  • Withdrawing from friends and social interactions.
  • Displaying signs of anxiety and depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There is a preoccupation with constant thoughts about food, and some may obsessively collect recipes or hoard food.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa can be a severe, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. Individuals with bulimia eat large amounts of food with a loss of control over overeating. Each binge eating episode continues until the person becomes painfully full. They generally feel that they are unable to stop eating or control how much they are eating. Binges could occur with any kind of food but mainly occur with foods the individual would typically avoid.

Post a binge session, one may regularly self-induce vomiting or misuse laxatives, weight-loss supplements, diuretics, or enemas. They do so to compensate for the calories consumed and relieve one’s gut discomfort.

Bulimia generally tends to develop during adolescence and early adulthood. It appears to be less common among men than women.

The symptoms for this eating disorder may appear to be similar to those of binge eating or purging subtypes of anorexia nervosa. However, individuals with bulimia usually maintain a relatively average weight rather than becoming underweight.

Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

The physical symptoms include :

  • Gaining and losing weight frequently. One’s weight is usually in the normal range, but one could also be overweight.
  • Dental problems, sore throat, and even swollen glands in one’s neck and face
  • Calluses on the knuckles or backs of hands because of frequent vomiting. One may also notice dry skin and brittle nails.
  • Heartburn, indigestion, bloating, and irregular periods can also be experienced.
  • Weakness, exhaustion, bloodshot eyes accompanied by dizziness or fainting
  • Problems in sleeping and feeling cold all the time.

The behavioral symptoms include :

  • Feeling out of control while eating, followed by purging because of preoccupation with body weight.
  • Stealing or hoarding food
  • Food rituals, like eating only a specific type of food. Chewing more than necessary or not allowing food to touch
  • Skipping meals or eating only small portions during meals and drinking large amounts of water or calorie-free beverages
  • Vomiting or abusing laxatives to lose weight or Excessive exercising
  • Using the bathroom frequently after meals
  • Depression or mood swings
  • Avoiding friends and activities or any form of social interaction.

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is one of the most common eating disorders, especially in the United States. It typically starts during adolescence or early adulthood, although it can develop later on.

Individuals with this eating disorder display symptoms similar to bulimia or the binge eating subtype of anorexia. They typically eat enormous amounts of food in relatively short periods and feel a lack of control during binges. However, they do not restrict calories or use purging behaviors or excessive exercise to compensate for their binges.

Symptoms of binge eating disorder

The physical symptoms include :

  • Lack of nutrient consumption can lead to dry skin, brittle nails, and hair loss.
  • Bloating, abdominal pain, and nausea because of overeating.
  • Low energy, sleepiness, and sluggishness caused by high sugar intake.
  • Eating large amounts of food in a short period may result in acid reflux, cramping, and heartburn. Repeated consumption of large quantities of food may cause long-term effects, like gastric dilation and gastric perforation.
  • High blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight are other vital indicators.

The behavioral symptoms include:

  • Individuals suffering from this disorder usually binge in secret or when alone. This could be late at night or in the parking lot of a restaurant. One may try to eliminate any evidence from their binges, such as hiding wrappers and food containers.
  • They usually eat more rapidly than usual and also consume large amounts without any feeling of hunger.
  • One may indulge in stockpiling or hoarding bags of chips or cookies in the closet or under the bed.
  • They may be unable to control how much they eat or when to stop. They may feel uncomfortably full after a binge.
  • They often eat lightly throughout the day without setting meal times, eating in smaller quantities, or even skipping them altogether.
  • They develop certain food rituals like chewing too much or not letting foods touch the plate. One may restrict oneself to eating only particular food.
  • They do nothing to get rid of extra calories, like throwing up or over-exercising.
  • Experiencing feelings of distress, such as shame, disgust, or guilt upon thinking about the binge-eating behavior.

Treatment for Eating Disorders

The road to recovery from an eating disorder is entirely possible. It starts with admitting that one has a problem. The good news is that unhealthy behaviors that one has learned can also be unlearned. Just like anyone who can develop an eating disorder, anyone can also get better.

Overcoming an eating disorder is about giving up unhealthy eating behaviors and learning new ways to cope with emotional pain and rediscover themselves beyond their weight and body image.

Consult Health Professionals

Most people suffering from an eating disorder require treatment from a team of health professionals (e.g., GP, psychiatrist, psychologist, and dietitian). The team helps in identifying the eating disorder, risk factors, triggers, and symptoms.

Post which, the individual and the healthcare team will agree on a treatment plan. To maximize the chances of a full recovery, there is a need for medical care, good nutrition, and psychological treatment.

Therapy

Various types of therapy can be used to treat an eating disorder. Therapy aims to reduce and eventually remove the problematic thoughts and emotions related to food and body image. By consulting a mental health professional, you will be able to identify the form of therapy that suits you best. Here are some common therapies that are used to treat eating disorders :

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aims to identify the thought patterns and beliefs that contribute to one’s eating disorder. These include difficult and unrealistic convictions associated with food, weight, body shape, and appearance. Once these thoughts and ideas are identified, they are taught strategies to modify and manage them. This form of therapy also results in improvements in other related symptoms like depression and anxiety.
  • Family-based treatment or the Maudsley Method is often used for children or adolescents who have an eating disorder. In this form of therapy, family members are vital parts of your recovery process. They are involved in maintaining healthy eating patterns, restoring and maintaining a healthy weight, and even interrupting unhealthy behaviors, such as binge eating or purging.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy asks the individual to focus on changing actions as opposed to thoughts or feelings. People undergoing ACT are asked to examine their own core values. Post which, they are asked to develop goals that help them better satisfy these values. The aim is to accept all feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant. This will enable the individual to commit to changing actions so that they better align with core values.

For any particular information regarding treatment or care plans, an individual must always refer to a mental health professional.

Self Help Strategies

While seeking professional help, the individual’s role can be critical in contributing to the path of recovery.

  • There is an increased emphasis on learning healthier ways to cope with emotional pain. This included reading, traveling, listening to music, journaling, or even playing with a pet.
  • The individual also needs to develop a balanced relationship with food. This includes letting go of rigid rules and sticking to a regular eating schedule as suggested by the dietitian.
  • One often indulges in unhealthy eating behaviors because of a lack of acceptance of one’s body and self image. Such individuals should work on learning to accept themselves. Remembering positive qualities about oneself, avoiding fat talk, or fact checking negative thoughts could be a great addition to therapy.

Seek social support

The journey to recovering from an eating disorder can be challenging. Hence, it is essential to develop solid social support among family and friends.

Individuals must surround themselves with people who want to see them healthy and happy.

Avoid people who drain your energy, encourage unhealthy eating behaviors, or make you feel bad about one’s weight or body.

One could also join social support groups or try group therapy to meet others who face similar disordered eating behaviors.

Key Takeaway:

Millions of people around the world face eating disorders.

Remember that you are not alone in this journey.

One’s inner voice may whisper that they will never be happy until they lose weight or that your worth is measured by how you look. However, the truth is that happiness comes from loving and accepting oneself for who they truly are.

The road to recovery is entirely possible as long as you are willing to walk it.

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