Understanding Eating Disorders
Eating disorders include many illnesses marked by an unhealthy relationship with food. People struggling with an eating disorder might restrict what and how often they eat. Others are unable to control how much they eat.
Eating disorders are extremely dangerous and can prove fatal when left untreated. This group has a higher mortality rate than that of any other mental illness. American women are most likely to suffer from an eating disorder, although American men also suffer from them.
Most eating disorders arise during the teen and young adult years and include:
- Anorexia Nervosa — Eating far less food than what’s healthy. Someone suffering from anorexia nervosa will have an unrealistic body image, feeling they are heavier than they actually are. He or she might also binge and purge, or eat and then vomit immediately. Some people with anorexia burn unhealthy amounts of calories by excessively exercising after eating.
- Bulimia Nervosa — Eating huge amounts of food and purging without being able to stop. Those struggling with bulimia often maintain what’s considered a healthy weight but feel ashamed of their binging and their bodies. Many bulimia sufferers will refuse to eat in public or around people.
- Binge Eating Disorder — Repeatedly eating more food than other people would or more food than necessary during a brief period. Episodes occur at least once a week over three months or more.
Many eating disorder sufferers fall into another category called Otherwise Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED).
Impact of Eating Disorders
Depriving the body of nutrients, eating excessive amounts of food and purging all cause serious harm to the mind and body. Anorexia nervosa leads to extreme thinness; brittle hair, nails and bones; yellowed, dried skin; losing muscle mass; and slowed pulse. At its most advanced stages, anorexia can cause multiorgan failure and brain damage.
Bulimia nervosa deprives the body of fluids and weakens tooth enamel via purging. It also causes gastrointestinal problems and acid reflux disease over time. Imbalances of calcium, sodium and other minerals in the body can lead to heart attack.
Other outward symptoms of an eating disorder might include:
Loss of teeth
Loss of hair
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Eating Disorders and Popular Culture
Society’s obsession with an “ideal” body type and dieting contributes to a complex, damaging culture surrounding food and eating. The misconception that “looking thin” will directly lead to professional and personal success is especially harmful. Studies show that 35 percent of “normal dieters” will slide into pathological dieting, or unsafe self-starving. This increases the risk of developing a severe eating disorder.
Young women are especially vulnerable to distorted expectations of beauty. Almost 47 percent of girls enrolled in 5th through 12th grade reported a desire to lose weight as a result of popular magazines’ depictions of the “ideal” female body.
Men often wrestle with their own eating disorder stigmas. Many men struggling with an eating disorder will not seek treatment due to widespread perceptions that eating disorders are a “woman’s disease.” As a result, researchers fear eating disorders among men often go unreported and untreated.
Signs of an Eating Disorder
It can be hard to recognize an eating disorder due to prevalent social pressure to have a “thin” physique. Someone can look relatively healthy or have a healthy-looking body weight but still be acting in a way that’s damaging.
Eating disorder sufferers might isolate themselves from friends and loved ones because they are ashamed. Many can hide their conditions until their bodies have deteriorated to a dangerous point.
Some signs of an eating disorder to look for include:
- Refusal to eat certain foods
- Constantly complaining of being “fat”
- Extremely low body weight
- Misusing laxatives and other diuretics
- Obsessive “calorie counting”
- Skipping meals or avoiding eating around others
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Denying having a problem with food
Those suffering from an eating disorder are also more likely than the general population to develop a substance use disorder. Nearly 50 percent of eating disorder sufferers meet criteria in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) outlining addiction. A substance use disorder coupled with an eating disorder can lead to death. Learn how to spot an addiction today.
Treatment for an Eating Disorder
Only 1 in 10 people suffering from an eating disorder ever receive treatment. Of that small population, only 35 percent receive treatment at a specialized facility. Professional care and support can help these people avoid tragedy.
Eating disorders can become chronic conditions requiring long-term treatment — there often isn’t an immediate “fix” for conditions like anorexia and bulimia nervosa. In dire cases, eating disorder sufferers might require hospitalization and monitoring to help their bodies recover.
Psychological counseling and psychotherapy offer the necessary tools for mental and emotional healing. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) also hosts and sponsors events across the country to emotionally support eating disorder sufferers and their loved ones through recovery.
Eating disorders of all kinds are challenging to overcome, but with the proper treatment you can make a turn toward recovery and health.