With society’s focus on achievement, beauty, and perfection, it’s no surprise that eating disorders are on the rise among both men and women in the United States. While there is often the perception that eating disorders only affect young women, the reality is that these disorders are prevalent among men and women of all ages who come from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Eating disorders are chronic, life-altering disorders that are often accompanied by other mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression. They can include the restriction food (Anorexia Nervosa), bingeing and purging (Bulimia Nervosa), binge eating (Binge Eating Disorder), or a combination thereof. And, because of the dangerous physical effects, these disorders have an extremely high mortality rate when compared to other mental health diagnoses. Most people have either experienced symptoms of an eating disorder first-hand, or have a friend or family member who has. Because of the prevalence and dangerousness of these disorders that have become somewhat minimized and more socially accepted, it is imperative that we increase awareness and recognize these signs that may occur:
The need for control: Surprisingly, eating disorders are not solely about food and dieting. Rather, there is a component of control that is at the root of many restrictive eating and bingeing/purging episodes. When other areas of life feel out of control, those with disordered eating often focus on controlling the intake of food in an attempt to assert control. Because we can quantify our bodies in pounds and inches, it’s seemingly easy to measure how much we are “controlling” our eating. Those with an eating disorder often equate decreasing weight with increased control.
Distorted body image: A person with an eating disorder may not have an accurate perception of the shape or size of his/her body. Often those with Anorexia will fixate on minute imperfections and interpret those as grossly obvious flaws. Even when others communicate that the person’s body is very thin, due to this distortion in body image, it may be difficult for the person see him/herself the way that others do.
Restricting/Overeating: Restricting the intake of food, bingeing, and/or purging are at the core of most disordered eating. Very rigid portion sizes, diets, and/or eating schedules are signs that a person may be attempting to control food intake in an unhealthy manner. For those who experience bingeing episodes, they may purchase sweet, high calorie foods, and large amounts of those foods may go missing relatively quickly. Even though the person may feel full, it is often difficult to stop eating once he/she has started. Thus, rapidly eating large quantities of food is a warning sign as well.
Compensating: Unhealthy attempts to compensate for food intake is yet another dangerous symptom. Common compensation methods include over exercising, using laxatives, and purging. The ever so popular and socially accepted “juicing” and “cleansing,” when used in a radical manner, may also be unhealthy means of compensating.
Reluctance to eat around others: Because of the feelings of shame, guilt, and rigidity that often accompany these disorders, many people who suffer from these symptoms are reluctant to eat in the presence of others. They may become fixated on their meal plan for the day; often perseverating about when, where, what, and with whom they are going to eat. Because anxiety increases when thinking about food, eating in a social setting may become distressing for them. Thus, they may avoid social meals and, when with a group, may eat very little, if at all.
Family history of eating disorder: There is a genetic component to eating disorders, thus those with family histories are at a higher risk. In addition, if a parent has disordered eating, these symptoms may affect the eating behaviors of the child. For example, if a parent is over-controlled and rigid with the diet for the family, the child may internalize such rigid expectations about food and, in turn, may eventually develop a disorder.
Other mental health symptoms: Depression and anxiety are common co-morbid diagnoses. Depressed mood, social withdrawal, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, worry, and/or angst are often present as well.
Physical symptoms: Eating disorders can take a dangerous physical toll on the person’s body. Common warning signs include: being underweight, hair loss, growth of fine hair (lanugo) on areas of the body, dental issues resulting from purging, cardiac issues, fatigue, amenorrhea (loss of menstruation cycle), esophageal issues/heartburn resulting from purging, and gastrointestinal issues.
Fixation on others’ bodies: Airbrushed magazine covers, celebrity obsessions, and social media are contributors to the notion that physical appearance is of great importance and that thin equals beautiful. Those with eating disorder symptoms tend to constantly compare and contrast their own bodies with the bodies of others. They may talk frequently about dieting, body size, and weight, including talking about and judging others’ appearances.
Secondary reinforcement: Eating disorders are chronic and they permeate a person’s life in most areas. Those with such symptoms tend to constantly focus on body image, food, and weight. Although these thoughts are often unwelcomed and distressing, they are very difficult for the person to ignore. And, because it has become socially acceptable to talk about weight, dieting, and body image as part of our daily dialogue, others who comment on the person’s weight and/or diet may unintentionally reinforce the disorder. Furthermore, because the eating disorder consumes much of the person’s time and cognition, the person’s identity may become entangled with the disorder. Thus, if the person begins recovery, it may become very difficult to let go of the disorder itself, as the disorder has become such a focus that, without it, those who are suffering often struggle to define who they are.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources and experts who specialize in treating these disorders. It is imperative that the treatment include an interdisciplinary treatment approach that includes psychological, psychiatric, and medical intervention. With the appropriate support and intervention, many are able to experience recovery and lead successful lives, in spite of a very debilitating illness.
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