What is an Eating Disorder?
An eating disorder is a severe mental illness dominated by extreme eating behavior and body image obsession.
This disorder can disrupt the way a person sees food. It is not a lifestyle choice, rather an uncontrollable urge to eat less or more. Although experts have pinpointed possible causes, the exact reason is not yet known. (1)
The disorder generally develops during teen years, and for some it may last throughout most of adulthood. Women often present a higher risk, although it is not uncommon in men. (2)
Even though exact reasons why a person might develops this condition are unknown, experts have found influencing factors. They believe it may involve interaction between genetic makeup, biological and behavioral aspects. (3)
Social and psychological circumstances may escalate the chances of developing this condition. Often children and young adults feel compelled to look a certain way. This may evolve into an obsession and distorted views of food.
This illness is typically associated with an individual who may exercise excessively and restrict the intake of food. But the issue may be much more profound. (4)
Those affected are usually afraid of weight gain. Even though the sufferer has become extremely thin, he/she often tends to believe that they are in fact, still overweight. This can cause grave complications and even death.
In contrast to the above, an eating disorder may also take a different turn. Some people may develop an uncontrollable desire to eat. This often results in excessive weight gain and obesity. (5)
The different types of eating disorders have unique signs and indicators. These are explained below.
Friends or family may notice the affected often makes excuses to avoid eating in front of others.
While eating, the individual may restrict the intake and avoid specific types of foods. Cutting the meal into unusual small pieces or rearranging it on the plate is not uncommon.
A person suffering from anorexia nervosa may express an intense fear of gaining weight. This may translate to a refusal to attain a healthy weight and a likelihood to overly criticise their body. (7)
The skin may begin to appear yellow or blotchy, covered with fine, thin hairs. It may become very dry, especially around the mouth.
The affected might exhibit slow thinking or confusion along with memory and judgment impairments. Hypersensitivity to cold temperatures, loss of muscle tone and bone strength may become apparent as the condition worsens.
In contrast to anorexia, those suffering from bulimia nervosa typically eat large amounts of food.
They often exhibit intermittent episodes where the person loses control and eats a significant amount of food. This is known as binge-eating.
The person then feels a need to compensate which may involve voluntary vomiting or misuse of laxatives to expel the food. The person might enforce this with fasting and excessive exercise. (8)
An individual suffering from bulimia nervosa is likely to present with an inflamed, sore throat. The salivary glands in the neck and jaw might be swollen. Teeth may appear worn down, increasingly decaying from continued exposure to stomach acids.
Prolonged laxative use and forced vomiting are likely to cause intestinal distress and gastrointestinal problems such as acid reflux disease. The affected might also exhibit signs of severe dehydration.
Bulimia nervosa can cause electrolyte imbalance, which means their mineral are either too high or low. This irregularity could lead to heart attack and stroke. (9)
People suffering from binge-eating disorder will also encounter episodes of uncontrolled eating. Unlike bulimia, these incidents do not induce urges to compensate. In turn, the sufferer is likely to gain excessive weight and is at risk of becoming obese. (10)
A person suffering from binge-eating disorder may eat an abnormal amount of food and will usually finish it rather quickly. The affected will likely eat even while full or without feelings of hunger.
Those affected often feel distressed or ashamed about eating and might frequently eat alone or in secret. They may regularly be dieting, but with little results to show.
There is not a staging system for the progression any of these conditions. Instead, there is a system which illustrates the “stages of change.” (11)
A person can progress through all stages but may suffer a relapse and fall back. This is normal and a part of recovery.
Experts believe it is essential to understand the stages of change. This will acknowledge the possibilities of relapse and may relieve the pressure.
The stages include:
Stage #1 (Pre-contemplation)
The eating disorder has become problematic and is raising concerns with family or friends. It is likely causing noticeable symptoms such as those described above. However, the affected is unlikely to acknowledge the issue and may not express a desire to change.
The sufferer may exhibit anger and frustration if the subject is brought up.
Stage #2 (Contemplation)
The affected has progressed to stage two when he/she begins to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a problem.
Benefits of change may be considered. However, the person might seem hesitant and express no particular desire to change.
The disorder often acts as a comfort zone with a strong gravitational pull, so it’s not easy to wander too far from it.
Stage #3 (Preparation)
The individual has accepted the need for reform. He/she is likely to be planning how to make the change.
Stage #4 (Action)
Commitment to change and readiness to confront fears are required to progress through this stage. The person is likely exhibiting a change in behavior. He/she may make changes in their thinking and surrounding environment.
Stage #5 (Maintenance)
This stage is where maintenance is required. The affected will likely exhibit more stable behaviors while readily displaying changed ways of thinking. Support will still play a vital role to remaining on a stable path.
Stage #6 (Relapse)
Experts have decided to include this as a stage. Relapse is very natural when changing behaviors and habits. It may even be a positive step, helping to assess what works and what doesn’t when it comes to change.
With help and support, people can overcome this.
There are a few key goals when treating an eating disorder. These can include: sufficient nutrition, reducing bad habits such as excessive exercising and stop the urges to purge. (12)
These can be achieved with medication or therapies.
Psychotherapies may involve the Maudsley approach or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). (13)
The Maudsley approach involves the parents or caregivers of the affected. They must embrace the responsibility to feed and improve their eating habits. This has proven a sufficient method, especially for those suffering from anorexia nervosa.
CBT is recommended to treat purging and binge-eating behaviors. This therapy will help the individual identify bad thinking and urges. This may help to successfully avoid relapses.
Specific medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers have shown to improve this disorder. (14)
Many times, an eating disorder develops due to an underlying issue such as depression or anxiety. So if these can be treated, it may reduce the effects of the the disease.
What is an eating disorder? An eating disorder is a mental illness causing distorted views on nutrition and body image.
What are the signs of an eating disorder? Signs depend on which type is acquired. Anorexia nervosa will likely manifest with restrictive eating and isolation. Bulimia is characterized by binge-eating followed by forced vomiting. Binge-eating disorder will cause the person to eat excessive amounts of food, usually resulting in obesity.
How do you develop an eating disorder? Various influences may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Experts have found evident interactions between psychological, social, behavioral and genetic makeup. However, exact causes are not known.
How are you diagnosed with an eating disorder? Specialists usually do a physical examination to look for signs. They may check the heart rate, lung functions and temperature. A urine sample might also be requested. Psychological evaluations will likely follow to assess the extent of mental illness. (15)
What is the best treatment of an eating disorder? Treatment will usually involve different therapies. These may help restore healthy eating habits by addressing the underlying issues. A therapist may help find ways to cope with changes and the urges to relapse. Medications may also be prescribed.
What are the long term complications of an eating disorder? Complications depend on the type of disorder. They may include: organ failure, brain and heart damage, infertility, stroke or heart attacks and obesity. (16)
Is an eating disorder considered a disability? No, an eating disorder is not recognized as a disability.
Is there any cure for an eating disorder? Yes with treatment it can be cured.
Is an eating disorder life threatening? It can have severe effects on health and can lead to fatalities. Anorexia nervosa is estimated to be the deadliest mental health illness among women. It can also lead to suicide. (17)
An eating disorder is a serious and sometimes fatal mental illness. It will create distorted views of food and body image for the affected.
Those affected will often display habits of limiting intake of food, binge-eating and purging.
It can be a challenging illness to cure. It thrives deep within the psychological aspects of a person where it will “plant” its sinister roots. Fortunately with help and support, people do recover.