Food is a necessity in our lives. It gives us energy and nourishes our bodies. But sometimes, what is supposed to provide us with vitality takes it away. People with eating disorders use food as a crutch for dealing with negative or overwhelming emotions until their relationship with it becomes unhealthy.
An eating disorder is a mental health condition in which a person uses food or develops harmful eating habits to help them deal with their emotions. Eating disorders can be serious and life-threatening. They affect as much as 9% of the global population, with women, adolescents, and LGBTQ people being the most susceptible.
While many people associate eating disorders with being underweight, only 6% of all sufferers are classified as underweight.
Eating disorders (ED) come in many forms. While it’s common to believe that people suffering from EDs restrict the amount of food they eat, this is not always the case.
Restricting food, constantly worrying about your body weight, binging, emotional eating, devouring food to the point where you feel sick or vomit, taking laxatives or vomiting on purpose, overexercising as a punishment for eating, and eliminating entire food groups without any medical justification are also classified as eating disorders.
Eating disorders can cause malnourishment, problems with the stomach and digestive tract, and in severe cases, can lead to suicide and other types of self-harm. In this article, we will take you through the most common eating disorders and share ideas about how to find help if you or someone you know is suffering from an ED.
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What are the most common eating disorders?
Anorexia nervosa is a well-known eating disorder that affects thousands of people worldwide. A person suffering from anorexia nervosa usually restricts their food intake, fasts often, and overexercises or tries to eliminate consumed food in other ways such as constantly taking laxatives and diuretics or vomiting. They tend to be thinner than other people their age, lack energy, and generally look ill.
People with anorexia nervosa see themselves as too fat, no matter how underweight they are. They use food and exercise to punish and control themselves. Such people also tend to possess other traits such as an inability to eat in public and control the world around them by monitoring the food that enters their bodies.
People who suffer from bulimia nervosa are also very conscious about their calory intake, but unlike anorexia nervosa, bulimic people tend to maintain normal body weight. The disorder manifests in periods of binge eating followed by some method of purging such as forced vomiting, taking laxatives, using enemas, or excessive exercising.
Bulimic people tend to overeat to the point where the stomach can’t digest all the food, and the person begins to feel sick. Usually, they binge on foods they would otherwise restrict.
Although the first two disorders may be better known, emotional eating is believed to be the most common disorder. This is a condition where a person who feels emotionally overwhelmed deals with their negative emotions through food. Usually, a person who suffers from emotional eating will eat a large amount of food in a brief period of time. Unlike those with bulimia or anorexia, emotional eaters don’t purge the food they consume. However, such a person might feel guilt, shame, and other negative emotions after binging.
Emotional eaters are more likely to be overweight and use food as a comfort or reward when they are sad, stressed, or dealing with other overpowering emotions.
Rumination disorder is a condition where a person eats and regurgitates their stomach contents after some time (usually around 30 minutes). Although the regurgitation is often voluntary for sufferers of rumination disorder, other conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and gastroparesis, can cause a person to regurgitate involuntarily. When rumination happens, the food in the stomach isn’t digested. A person might re-swallow it or spit it out. Either way, this disorder can cause malnourishment, low weight, and digestive tract issues.
What causes eating disorders?
There’s no single reason some people develop eating disorders. Usually, multiple factors interact to cause a person to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and have a poor body image.
Some of the most common reasons include:
genetics—people whose parents suffered from eating disorders are more likely to suffer too
mental illness—an eating disorder is a mental condition, but it often accompanies other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic disorder
societal pressure—when a person grows up in an environment where only certain body types were accepted and praised and where food is associated with guilt, they are more likely to develop toxic eating habits
poor body image—if a person was criticised and bullied about their weight and body, they are likely to have a poor body image, try to change their weight, or strive for unrealistic beauty standards
What are the signs that you or someone else has an ED?
It can be challenging to recognise when someone has an eating disorder because they often maintain a normal weight and look healthy. You can also be suffering from an eating disorder yourself without knowing it. While each case is different, certain tell-tale behaviours indicate a risk of an eating disorder.
not eating in front of others
obsessive calory counting
purging after eating
feeling guilty or ashamed after eating (restricted) food
complaining and worrying about your body shape and weight
going to the bathroom a lot right after eating
significant loss of weight
changes in mood, other mental health disorders (anxiety, depression, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.)
overeating, eating large amounts of food quickly
trying to control how your body looks
overexercising, or using exercise as a punishment for overeating or as an excuse to eat more
The dangers of eating disorders
Eating disorders are the second most dangerous mental illness. Only opioid overdose has higher fatality rates than ED. People who suffer from EDs are more likely to develop dangerous physical illnesses, harm themselves, or even commit suicide. Other hazards of eating disorders include:
inflamed throat, swollen salivary glands, worn tooth enamel, tooth decay, acid reflux, gut irritation, and dehydration if a person purges by vomiting or taking laxatives
If left untreated, some of these disorders can lead to fatal malnourishment, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and other deadly consequences.
What can you do to heal from an eating disorder?
Each eating disorder is different, and so are the treatments. However, most EDs have psychological roots. If you suspect you have an eating disorder or someone you know does, seek help immediately. The first thing to do is to make sure the person’s vital functions aren’t being affected. If they are, a healthcare provider will have to ensure the proper medical treatment to restore mineral and vitamin levels.
The second and very crucial step is therapy. Whether you choose individual or group therapy, it’s crucial to analyse the root cause behind toxic eating habits and distorted body image. Therapy can help you regain inner peace and develop healthier coping methods. As with any other mental illness, it takes time to heal from an eating disorder. Sometimes it can take a lifetime. Learning ways to manage your emotions and develop healthy eating habits are the way forward to a happier, healthier life.
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