The Facts About Eating Disorders
Eating disorders affect many people each year. Let’s talk about how we can help those who are struggling.
FOOD. People have all kinds of feelings about food. It can be so nourishing, it can be unhealthy, it can be a reason for celebration. A person’s relationship with food is personal.
And not everyone's relationship with food is a healthy one.
According to a study by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), over 28 million people will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime.
The number seems to be increasing each year, with eating disorders now being the third most common chronic illness in female teenagers.
The good news is that it is possible to overcome eating disorders, and it starts with knowing the signs, the symptoms, and the resources that can help. Here’s some basic information about eating disorders and how you can help those who are suffering:
What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorder is an umbrella term to describe illnesses that cause disturbances to someone’s eating behaviors or patterns. People affected are usually obsessed with controlling their food intake and often have struggles with their body weight and appearance. These symptoms are often tied to other psychological issues like depression or anxiety, and frequently develop from the long-term effects of previous trauma, negative body image, or media.
What are common eating disorders?
• Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme dieting and an ongoing pattern of reduced food intake. Those who suffer from this eating disorder often have an intense fear of gaining weight or experience a distortion of body image. They often over-exercise as well.
• Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, which may be surprising, as most attention on eating disorders is paid to those which result in weight loss. However, binge eating, in which someone binges (overeats large amounts of food in a short amount of time) and often results in becoming overweight or obese. They often feel intense shame and distress about their eating habits and it can be every bit as medically significant and difficult to overcome as anorexia or bulimia.
• Bulimia nervosa is a disorder in which someone binges a large amount of food, and then engages in purging the food, whether through vomiting or using laxatives. Like anorexia, those who struggle with bulimia desperately try to manage their weight and fear weight gain.
What signs should you look for?
Those with eating disorders often deliberately hide their eating habits, so this can make it difficult to determine if someone is suffering. But there are some signs to watch out for if you are concerned about a loved one.
Signs of anorexia:
• Dramatic weight loss
• Making comments about being “fat”
• Loss of menstruation
• Avoiding eating in front of others
• Obsession with dieting and calorie counting
• Excessive exercise
• Wearing loose or baggy clothing to hide weight loss
Signs of binge eating disorder:
• Avoiding eating in front of others
• Dieting often but having no changes in weight
• Hoarding or hiding food
• Weight gain
• Evidence of binge eating like empty food wrappers or containers
Signs of bulimia:
• Evidence of binge eating
• Evidence of purging like going to the bathroom after meals, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives
• Avoiding eating with others
• Excessive exercise
• Using lots of gum or mouthwash
• Constant dieting
• Complaints about body weight or being fat
• Wearing baggy clothes
When left untreated, eating disorders can lead to a plethora of issues and can sometimes even be fatal. Bulimia can result in bleeding from the esophagus, and other complications of the digestive tract. In extreme cases, anorexia can lead to malnutrition and even organ failure. Extreme cases of binge eating can lead to permanent disability and death from lack of mobility, heart failure, and other diseases connected to severe obesity. Thankfully, there are many resources that can help those who are struggling to overcome these debilitating illnesses.
Where can I turn for help?
Whether you or someone you love is suffering with a difficult relationship with food, there is hope and help for you. There are many online and in-person support groups available to help those who struggle with all kinds of eating disorders. Other helpful resources include the National Eating Disorders Helpline which has an online chat feature and can be reached through call or text by reaching out to a therapist or counselor who specializes in eating disorders. A great place to start is also making an appointment with your primary care physician to help you find the correct treatment for you or your loved one, which might include antidepressant medications or therapy.
How can I help?
You can make all the difference for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. Being aware of any physical or behavioral changes and signs of eating disorders is the first step.
Also debunking myths about eating disorders is helpful. For example, someone struggling with anorexia or bulimia will not always be underweight, and although eating disorders are more common in women, they can also affect men of all ages.
If you are worried about a loved one who may be suffering, let them know your concerns, be patient and understanding. Avoid commenting on their weight or appearance or shaming them for their struggles. Instead, share your love with them, and encourage them to seek the treatment they need. Offering your support will help them on the path to healing.
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