A Guide to Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are recognised as mental health conditions. They affect several million people at different stages of their lives and studies show that mostly women, between the ages of 12 and 35, suffer from the different types of eating disorders that have been categorised.

This article is to educate you on the severity of eating disorders and the need to request help and begin the process of healing early on in the struggle.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a serious, complex, and often dangerous set of illnesses that can affect anyone. Eating disorders are characterised by extreme—usually unhealthy or dangerous—concerns with body weight or shape over a prolonged period of time. Eating problems can range from mild to severe. For some sufferers, the problem is a temporary phase; for others, it becomes chronic.

They affect several million people at different stages of their lives and studies show that mostly women, between the ages of 12 and 35, suffer from the different types of eating disorders that have been categorised.

eating disorder awareness ribbon

What Causes an Eating Disorder?

Bad eating patterns devolve into eating disorders and the condition becomes toxic when the individual becomes fixated with feelings of inadequacy. This fixation on the feeling that one is not worthy or good enough by the standards of beauty perpetuated in the media and advertising, become a dangerous mirror for a person that is predisposed to a mental health issue.

Below you will find a list of the most common forms of eating disorders and their symptoms.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is most commonly referred to as Anorexia and is a dangerous eating disorder. The condition is indicated by extreme and unhealthy weight-loss due to starvation. While this condition is seen amongst both genders, it is found in disproportionately high numbers of young girls and women. It is a disorder that is prevalent in most cultures where emphasis is placed on the appearance of an individual being thin. Many athletes, models and dancers are at risk of this disorder where this emphasis on a certain type of lean physique is the norm.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa are:

  • Purging behaviours that include vomiting, using laxatives and diuretics to eliminate food and water from the system faster and unnaturally
  • Obsessive focus on measuring food intake and using diet fads that count calories
  • Extreme emotional and mood changes due to an imbalance in hormonal states and a lack of electrolytes and water in the body
  • A false impression of one’s body image.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is commonly referred to as Bulimia and is a dangerous eating disorder. It is characterised by individuals binge-eating secretly and then expelling this food in an unhealthy manner by inducing vomiting. This is their attempt at getting rid of unhealthy calories and maintaining an unhealthily low body weight. People that suffer with Bulimia are usually obsessed with their body weight and shape and feel constantly scrutinised for their perceived flaws in the eyes of society.

Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa are:

  • An unhealthy obsession with body weight and shape
  • Being afraid to gain weight
  • Lack of control during binge-eating
  • Excessive use of laxatives and diuretics to aid maintaining a low body weight
  • Forcefully purging food through vomiting.
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a woman bingeing on snacks

Binge Eating Disorder

This eating disorder was initially called Night Eating Syndrome, but has now been called Binge Eating Disorder (BED) to allow for the fact that this can occur at any time of the day. It is recognised as compulsive overeating that is categorised by episodes of eating an inordinately large amount of food and feeling an inability to stop or display control over this behaviour.

People suffering from BED often experience feelings of guilt, embarrassment as well as shame and this places them in a very dangerous space regarding their mental health.

Causes of BED can be biological, related to hormonal or genetic predispositions to eating disorders. It can also be attributed to psychological and/or social and cultural causes that lead to an individual trying to find comfort and escapism in the physical and chemical effects of overeating.

Symptoms of Binge Eating Disorder are:

  • Eating even when full, finding it difficult or impossible to stop eating
  • Hoarding food to eat in private
  • Feeling anxious and only feel emotionally comforted by eating
  • The feeling of never being satisfied – a very important symptom that can assist in beginning the process of healing because
  • Medical complications as a result of excessive eating of unhealthy food, e.g. cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, digestive issues.

a woman standing on weighing scales

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Avoidant/Restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is characterised by the continuous failure to take care of one’s nutritional needs.

This eating disorder differs slightly from others as it may be caused by a dominant biological issue that is compounded by psychological and societal pressures.

Due to the individual nature of how ARFID afflicts a person, each diagnosis could be different to each person.

Symptoms of ARFID are:

  • Avoidance of eating based on foods having a negative sensory characteristic to the individual
  • Significant weight loss
  • Fixation on negative consequences to eating, which result in failure to meet basic nutritional requirements.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

There are eating disorders that may not be as well-known as the above, and are not classified on their own, but fall within the classification called Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). They have the same degree of psychological and physical affects and can be helped with understanding the effect and the symptoms related to these. Some of these disorders have been listed below to provide an understanding of how they may display.

PICA – This is a disorder where a person compulsively eats non-food items, e.g. toys, metal, soap, dirt and in extreme cases, faeces. The causes can be traced to mineral deficiencies and the body craving those nutrients. PICA could also be attributed to mental health issues and an individual uses this to cope with their issues.

Rumination Disorder – is a condition where a person repeatedly and unintentionally regurgitates undigested or partially digested food. The individual chews this regurgitated food again and either swallows again or spits this food out. As suspected cause of this condition is an increase in abdominal pressure. It is also related to people who suffer with anxiety and depression. Some of the symptoms of this disorder are pain in the abdominal area that is easily relieved by regurgitation, nausea and unintentional weight loss.

Night Eating Syndrome (NES) – Night Eating Disorder and Binge Eating Disorder are similar; while individuals with NES are often referred to as binge eaters. The difference between the two disorders that people suffering with NES don’t necessarily require large amounts of food, but are overcome by a feeling of not being able to control their eating behaviour and therefore feel shame and guilt. The reasons for NES are related to dieting restrictions that create false cueing messaging and cause people to eat unnecessarily at night. It could also be attributed to hormonal or stress-related factors. This does have an impact on a person’s mental health.

The Dangers Associated with Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are highly dangerous as they affect an individual’s mental and physical well-being. If left untreated and allowed to escalate over time, it could lead to major organ failure and even death.

Physical issues that occur because of lack of nutrients in the body are dry skin, loss in muscle mass, brittle hair and nails and noticeable thinness. More serious conditions that can have long-term effects are cardiovascular issues, dehydration and malnutrition, decreased neurological function, gastrointestinal issues, lowered hormone levels, lowered body temperature and deterioration of the oesophagus and teeth.

People suffering from this debilitating disorder have serious mental health issues that display as obsessive thoughts, low self-esteem, a tendency to self-harm, anxiety, depression and are at risk of becoming victims of suicide.

 

a mother comforting her daughter

Getting Help for an Eating Disorder

While the treatment plan for each individual suffering from an eating disorder will differ based on the person, the approach is usually a combination of psychotherapy, nutrition education, medical monitoring and possibly medications as well.

The individual needs much support and guidance through this process and a family and support structure is extremely important to their progress.

Mental disorders and especially those stemming from eating disorders require compassionate treatment and support to help the individual understand that their perception of themselves as being ‘not good enough’ is a false statement. The treatment team need to be a cohesive group of health professionals and the family support structure. This is not a short-term solution and process; it requires a treatment plan that is based includes the above necessary interventions as well as a support/counselling network for long-term support. The options available range from private treatment at outpatient facilities and hospitals to in-care residential treatment centres and hospitals.

In the UK the following groups are available as a long-term support networks and can also assist you with putting together a treatment plan and team to assist you:

https://aba12steps.org/
https://www.oagb.org.uk/

Frequently Asked Questions
You may have a lot of questions about eating disorders. If you are unable to find the answer below please give us a call and speak to one of our addiction specialists today.
Are eating disorders genetic?
Eating disorders often develop as a result of environmental factors such as criticism for body shape or weight and media exposure to the “ideal” body type. However, there is increasing advances in studies showing a link between the sensitivity to eating disorders and genetics. Studies show an approximately 40% to 60% liability to genetic factors.
What is the most common eating disorder?
According to studies, the most common eating disorders are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge-eating Disorder. These disorders are linked to a person’s mental state of mind and their distorted sense of self in the face of environmental pressures. The disorders mentioned above provide them with a coping mechanism that feels safe for them.
How can I recover from an eating disorder?
The first step is to talk to a GP or medical professional about your eating habits. A GP will perform an examination and ask you some questions about your diet, and assess whether underlying mental health conditions are present. From there a suitable treatment plan will be put in place.

Private hospitals and treatment centres are available throughout the UK which provide fast-tracked integrated care, this option may be more suitable for those with difficult and complex cases.

Are eating disorders a form of mental illness?
Eating disorders have been recognised as a mental illness and is therefore treated as such by medical professionals. Because of the nature of the disorder based on toxic food habits that affect the body physically and the mental implications of the self-talk, the treatment is a holistic one. The introduction of a healthy eating plan together with therapy is extremely necessary.
How can I support someone with an eating disorder?
The first step to helping someone with an eating disorder is to be kind and empathetic and refrain from criticising the person for their behaviour and disorder. Shaming someone will one serve to drive them further into their mental illness, especially if this criticism comes from a perceived loved one.

It is important to understand the disorder and the effects of it on the individual. Support and encouragement during the recovery process is extremely important as they will need support in their daily life as they move through therapy. It may also be wise to ask the person how you can support them while maintaining healthy boundaries between each other.

How are eating disorders diagnosed?
Eating disorders are initially diagnosed by the symptoms displayed by the person suffering with the disorder. Thereafter, a medical professional needs to be engaged to run tests on the individual to confirm the initial diagnosis. A physical exam and an order for specific lab tests are conducted together with a psychological evaluation. The person is then monitored for the severity of the condition and to ensure a focused approach to recovery.