What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are serious and common conditions that cause emotional and physical damage. While eating disorders appear to be about weight and image, they're actually about control or avoidance of stress and emotional issues.
Those who suffer from eating disorders generally try to hide the problem, but there are signs of a problem if you know what to look for. Early detection and treatment of eating disorders makes for an easier recovery. It's important to note that, while you may confront someone whom you suspect has an eating disorder, you cannot force someone with an eating disorder into treatment. Making an effort to be a caring, compassionate support system is often the best thing that can be done when a loved one suffers from an eating disorder.
Eating disorders involve extreme disturbances in eating behaviors, such as gorging, following rigid diets, throwing up after meals, and counting calories obsessively; they are more than just an unhealthy eating habit. The core of eating disorders involves self-critical, distorted attitudes about weight, body image, and food, all of which lead to the damaging eating behaviors.
Food, for those with eating disorders, is used to deal with painful emotions. Restricting food (as is the case with anorexia nervosa) is used to feel in control. Overeating soothes sadness, anger, and loneliness. Purging combats feelings of self-loathing and helplessness. Over time, food and weight obsessions dominate the life of someone with an eating disorder.
Common Myths About Eating Disorders:
Only teen girls and young women have eating disorders. Eating disorders ARE more common in these age groups; however, men and women of all ages suffer eating disorders.
You have to be underweight to have an eating disorder. People who have eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes - many of those are normal or overweight.
Eating disorders aren't dangerous. Every single eating disorder can lead to life-threatening and irreversible health problems, including death.
People who have eating disorders are really vain. It's not actually vanity that drives those with eating disorders to obsess about their food. Eating disorders are a product of feelings of shame, poor body image, anxiety, and powerlessness.
Types of Eating Disorders:
What follows is a brief synopsis of the different types of eating disorders. To read more about specific eating disorders, simply click the link.
1) Anorexia Nervosa: a potentially life-threatening disorder marked by extreme fasting or restriction of food intake, often eating as little as 200 calories a day. Anorexics have an intense fear of weight-gain; even while underweight, they see themselves as fat. Females with anorexia develop amennorrhea, or the absence of menstruation.
Anorexics may eliminate many essential parts of the diet, depriving themselves of nutrients and minerals. Often, anorexics are obsessive-compulsive about their food intake. Despite their extreme fasting, anorexics are often obsessed with food; cooking family meals or working in a place that serves food is common.
Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa:
- Brittle hair and nails
- Osteoporosis or Osteopenia (thinning of the bones)
- Dry, yellowish skin
- Lanugo (fine hair growth all over the body)
- Low respirations, heartbeat, and blood pressure
Treating Anorexia Nervosa:
- Treatment of underlying psychological issues, sometimes with antidepressants or other mood stabilizers
- Restoring the sufferer to healthy weight
- Preventing relapse by reducing or eliminating the behaviors or thoughts that lead to the eating disorder
2) Bulimia Nervosa: an eating disorder marked by recurrent episodes of extreme overeating (binging), feeling out-of-control about the binging, and over-concern with weight and body shape. After a binging session, the sufferer may induce vomiting, use diuretics, enemas, laxatives, or over-exercise.
These purging sessions are generally done with great shame in private.
Bulimics are often within normal weight for their size or slightly overweight.
Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa:
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck and jaw
- Worn tooth enamel and decaying teeth due to chronic exposure to stomach acid
- Kidney disorders (if diuretics are used)
- Intestinal distress (if laxatives are used)
- Severe dehydration
Treatment For Bulimia Nervosa:
- Nutritional Counseling
- Antidepressant medications
3) Binge-Eating Disorder: an eating disorder marked by overeating (binging) without the purging. A person suffering Binge-Eating Disorder feels out of control, shameful, and guilty about their binging, which can lead to more binging.
Symptoms of Binge-Eating Disorder:
- Weight gain
- Feeling out of control about food consumption
- Weight fluctuations
- Decreased libido
- Low self-esteem
- Guilt and shame, feels disgusted by self
- Hides food, secretive about eating patterns
- Belief that life will be better if they lose weight
- Avoid social situations where food is offered
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Decreased mobility
Treatment for Binge-Eating Disorder:
- Treating underlying psychological issues
- Therapy - personal or group
- Appetite suppressants
4) Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS): disordered eating patterns that do not meet the criteria for diagnosis of other eating disorders. The sufferer may have some symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating, but not all. They may switch between disordered patterns of eating.
The name EDNOS can incorrectly imply that EDNOS is not a serious disorder.
Common Warning Signs of Eating Disorders:
In the early stages of an eating disorder, it may be really hard to ascertain the difference between an eating disorder and normal weight concerns and dieting. As an eating disorder progresses, the red flags and warning signs become more apparent. Those who suffer eating disorders are particularly good at hiding their disorders, so knowing the common warning signs may help to spot an eating disorder.
- Hoarding high-calorie food
- Constant dieting - even when thin
- Rapid unexplained weight gain or loss
- Preoccupation with body or weight
- Binging - usually performed in secret
- Purging - disappearing after every meal or frequent trips to the bathroom
- Obsession with food, calories or nutrition
- Usage of laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills
- Compulsive exercising
- Making excuses to get out of eating
Who Has Eating Disorders?
Every year, there are approximately 10 million women and 1 million men with some form of an eating disorder in the United States. Twenty percent of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems.
- Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents
- 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25
- 50% of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight
- 80% of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight
Complications of Eating Disorders:
Eating disorders can cause life-long medical issues and even death. These medical issues may still arise years after successful treatment.
Complications can include (but are not limited to):
- Heart troubles
- Digestive issues
- Kidney disorders
- Problems during pregnancy
How Do I Help a Loved One With An Eating Disorder?
If you've spotted the warning signs of an eating disorder in someone you care about, it's hard to know what you should do about it. You don't want to hurt their feelings, falsely accuse them, or say the wrong thing.
Do it anyway.
People who suffer eating disorders can be very afraid to ask for help, and eating disorders get worse over time. Say something to them when you first suspect there is a problem.
How to Talk to Someone About an Eating Disorder:
- Avoid accusatory, critical or harsh statements as it may make your loved one defensive. Instead, talk about what worries you.
- Focus upon feelings and relationships rather than weight or food. Use specific examples of times that you noticed a particular behavior.
- Don't mention their looks - the person with the eating disorder is already too aware of their body. Comments about weight and/or appearance will reinforce their obsession.
- Avoid power struggles over food.
- Don't demand that they change.
- Don't criticize their eating habits.
- Respect their privacy but tell them you're concerned about their health. Knowing that you're concerned will help the person with the eating disorder feel more comfortable.
- Avoid casting blame, shame, or guilt-trips. Don't accuse them. Instead of saying, "You just need to eat," say, "I'm concerned because you didn't eat breakfast."
- Avoid simple solutions. They're notoriously unhelpful and may minimize the problem.
Help! My Child Has An Eating Disorder!
Having a child with an eating disorder is one of the hardest things a parent may have to handle. Alongside professional treatment, here are some tips:
- Avoid threats, scare-tactics, angry outbursts, and insults. Negative communication will only make it worse.
- Look at your OWN attitudes about food, weight, body image, and body size. Discuss the way you're affected by body image pressures with your child.
- Set caring, consistent limits.
- Stay firm. Eating disorders are very serious and require constant supervision.
- Promote their self-esteem in any way possible.
- Encourage your child to find better, healthier ways to manage unpleasant feelings like stress, depression, loneliness and self-hatred.
- Remember, above all else, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
My Best Friend Is Starving Herself. What Do I Do?
If you know that your friend is not eating or is eating and purging, tell someone.
Tell his or her parents, a teacher, or even your parents. Your friend may listen to an adult before she listens to you.
If you are an adult, gently express your concern to them. Perhaps you can talk to their spouse or partner. Be supportive, especially if inpatient treatment or long-term outpatient treatment is needed. Recovery isn't instantaneous.
Treatment for Eating Disorders:
There are many different treatment options for eating disorders, but an individualized care plan will be developed for the individual suffering an eating disorder. Effective treatment must address both psychological and physical aspects of the disorder, with the end goal of treating medical and nutritional needs, promoting a positive relationship with food, and teaching constructive ways to deal with food.
A combination of the following treatment approaches may be used to treat eating disorders:
Psychotherapy - individual, group and family therapy may be used to help promote self-esteem, teach constructive ways to handle negative emotions and treat underlying issues of the eating disorder.
Nutritional Counseling - can help the person suffering an eating disorder to design meal plans, set dietary goals, and achieve healthy weight.
Support Groups - this may reduce the stigma and shame the person with an eating disorder feels about their eating disorder by sharing their stories in a safe, supported environment of their peers.
Residential or Hospital-Based Treatment - in cases where severe malnutrition is involved, medical intervention may be required for continuing treatment of an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Hotlines:
The ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) Helpline - 630-577-1330
NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Helpline - 800-931-2237
Additional Eating Disorders Resources:
Something Fishy: a great site with wonderful advice, support and resources, for people suffering with various eating disorders. It also offers support for friends, families and caregivers. It provides a list of medical conditions that eating disorders can cause, along with ways to help your friend or loved one, and things NOT to say to them.
Academy for Eating Disorders - a global professional association committed to leadership in eating disorders research, education, treatment, and prevention.
The National Eating Disorders Associations offers support to both sufferers and family members alike. They also have an event and programs calendar with events planned around the USA.