According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Eating disorders are behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions. They can be very serious conditions affecting physical, psychological and social function.”
You may be surprised to know that eating disorders are common in the US, and both men and women suffer from them. They can affect people regardless of age, gender, weight, or body shape, and eating disorders are both physical as well as emotional illnesses. Many people think that if you have an eating disorder, you have chosen to live that way and adopt those unhealthy habits, but it is actually a mental disorder that turns into a physical illness, often serious and possibly leading to death. Eating disorders often co-occur with other psychiatric disorders like anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and alcohol and drug abuse problems. The associated behaviors, like an unhealthy obsession with your weight, body shape, or food, are very similar to an addiction and often happen alongside other psychiatric disorders. There are many types of eating disorders but the most known are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.
Most common types of eating disorders
Anorexia: This eating disorder has the highest mortality of any psychiatric diagnosis, other than opioid use disorder, and can be a very serious condition. Dieting behavior in anorexia nervosa is driven by an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. Although some individuals with anorexia will say they want and are trying to gain weight, their behavior is not consistent with this intent. For example, they may only eat small amounts of low-calorie foods and exercise excessively.
You cannot tell if a person is struggling with anorexia by looking at them. A person does not need to look too thin or underweight to be struggling. It may be surprising to many, but did you know that studies have found that larger-bodied individuals can also have anorexia? Unfortunately, they are less likely to be properly diagnosed due to a previous perception and attitude regarding obesity.
There are generally two subtypes of anorexia: people who diet, fast, and/or exercise excessively and those that binge eat and then vomit or take laxatives to purge themselves of the food they just ate. Both are dangerous and can lead to long-term physical damage. Symptoms like: irregular or missed menstrual cycle, fainting, dizziness, muscle wasting, depression, anxiety, fatigue, constipation, heartburn, thinning hair, and weakened immune system, to name a few. Anorexia affects the body because starvation does not supply the body with the nutrients it needs to function. When the body doesn’t have the nutrients it needs, it conserves energy by slowing down its processes and functions. Properly fueling our bodies is crucial to maintaining good health and leading a healthy life. Many people don’t realize that even an electrolyte imbalance can lead to death.
Bulimia: In this type of eating disorder, people will overindulge in food and then induce vomiting or diarrhea, this is called binging and purging. We all eat a little too much sometimes, but when someone binges, it is not an occasional slight overindulgence. Binging is eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time, with a feeling of being out of control. It is a pattern that they have where they often feel that they can’t stop eating at that moment and then have to get rid of all of those calories so that they do not gain weight. They may feel that it is the only way to enjoy “forbidden” foods but not gain the weight they fear. People with bulimia can force themselves to vomit, take laxatives, weight loss supplements, diuretics, and exercise excessively. Like with other eating disorders, they see themselves as overweight even when they are in fact, thin or of normal average weight. People with bulimia can usually maintain a relatively normal weight, or even be overweight, rather than becoming underweight. Many times, friends or family will not know their loved one has bulimia because they “look normal”. Bulimia can cause issues in the esophagus, dehydration, tooth decay, sore throat, swollen salivary glands, and hormonal imbalances, amongst other issues.
Binge eating: This disorder is similar to bulimia in that the person binges or overeats but differs from bulimia in that they do not purge. We can all relate to overeating on occasion; holiday meals are a great example. But for those that suffer from this disorder, binging is a regular occurrence. Binge eating is a serious and harmful disorder. People who binge eat, feel the compulsion to eat large amounts of food in a short amount of time and feel out of control while they do it. They may overeat in secret and feel shame and guilt after their binging. They may try to diet, but dieting may lead to more binge eating. Since they do not purge after their binging, they are often overweight. Binge eating is the most common eating disorder in America, and severity is measured by how many episodes per week a person binges. The good news is that treatment is available and does help.
Are there risk factors for an eating disorder?
Since many eating disorders are psychological, risk factors are complex and can include biological and sociocultural factors. Generally, studies have shown that biological risk factors include having a close relative with an eating disorder or a mental health condition, a history of dieting, changes in brain chemicals, emotional problems, low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bullying. Although men and boys can develop eating disorders, most often it is teenage girls and younger women that do. All eating disorders can cause serious health problems, suicidal behaviors, depression, and other mental disorders so it is important to seek help to recover. Psychotherapy counseling, medical care and treatment plan, nutritional counseling, and establishing support systems are all important tools that can be tailored to each individual and what will be best for them.
If you don’t know where to start or need help with an eating disorder there are programs and resources available for you! The healthcare providers at Med First can talk with you about the different eating disorders, counsel you, and examine and assess physical symptoms, complications, and concerns. They can refer you to counseling services, order needed testing, and much more. Find a Med First healthcare team that cares about you and can get you started on the journey to healing and recovery. Call the appointment line or find your nearest location and self-schedule your appointment by clicking the button below.