Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent and while some may attribute their development to lifestyle choices or social influence, the reality is that eating disorders are mental health disorders. While many can place some level of blame on increased focus on weight, body shape, and food in the media, eating disorders can develop from other influences such as the experience of trauma. Eating disorders have a profound impact on physical health, but they are also detrimental to mental and emotional health as well.
An eating disorder can develop at any stage in life, but in most cases, they often develop during adolescence or early adulthood. There are several types of eating disorders that exist and symptoms can vary, but the most prevalent ones include severe restrictions on food, binging, purging, or over-exercising.
Types of Eating Disorders: Signs and Risks
An eating disorder can develop for numerous reasons. Many experts believe that genetics, brain development, personality traits, and cultural influence can all be attributed to the development of an eating disorder. There are numerous types of eating disorders, although some are more prevalent than others. These include:
Those with anorexia tend to view themselves as overweight even if they are extremely underweight. Due to fear of gaining weight and their distorted perception of self, they may resort to drastic measures to control their weight and shape. Restricting their food intake, excessive exercise, use of laxatives, and dieting are common methods of weight control.
Over time, anorexia can lead to severe damage to the body and risk for organ failure. Thinning bones, infertility, brittle nails and hair are just some of the symptoms that may develop. Eventually, anorexia can lead to death through self-starvation or multi-organ failure.
Bulimia is another well-known eating disorder that has symptoms similar to anorexia. With bulimia, however, a person will eat excessive amounts of food in a short period of time until the point that they are painfully full. They will then attempt to purge to address the number of calories they consumed and relieve discomfort. Those with bulimia often express feeling no control when they eat.
Those with bulimia may experience symptoms such as sore throat, tooth decay, acid reflux, dehydration, and hormonal imbalances. Because bulimia can create imbalances in the body, many with this disorder experience a stroke or heart attack at some point in their lives.
Binge-eating is similar to anorexia and bulimia in some regards, but contrary to those other conditions, binge-eating disorder does not include restricting calories, purging, or excessive exercise to compensate for overconsumption. With this disorder, a person will consume large amounts of food, often in secret, even if they feel full. Even if they grapple with feelings of shame, disgust, or guilt, they feel unable to control their eating behaviors.
Those with binge-eating disorder tend to be overweight or obese. They are at a heightened risk for medical complications and issues related to their weight. Heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and heart disease are common.
Rumination is a newly recognized eating disorder in which a person regurgitates food they have previously chewed and swallowed. They may chew and swallow it again or spit it out. This usually occurs within the first 30 minutes of eating and is completely voluntary.
In many cases, a person with rumination will restrict that amount of food they eat, especially in public. Over time, rumination can lead to severe malnutrition and weight loss that can be fatal.
Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
This disorder is experienced as either a lack of interest in food or a distaste for food that is either a certain color, temperature, texture, or smell. They may avoid or restrict their intake based on this which can lead to a lack of nutrients or calories in the overall diet.
This eating disorder goes beyond being a picky eater. It can cause a person to experience weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, and may require a person to depend on supplements or tube feeding.
When to Seek Help
Many people who struggle with an eating disorder may not feel like they have a problem or need treatment. Even if they are not ready to admit there is a problem, starting the conversation is important to help them consider the options. Recovery from an eating disorder is not just a matter of addressing eating behaviors, it also requires a focus on mental health and help from medical specialists.
Eating disorders can be attributed to numerous influences. One of the primary areas of focus in recovery is helping a person achieve a healthy weight through the development of proper eating habits. Working with a nutritionist can help a person work towards a healthy weight, better understand how nutrition impacts the body, and make lifestyle changes to support healthy eating in the future. By focusing on things such as regular meals at routine times and meal prepping, a person can move away from dieting and binging, and focus on behaviors that enable better overall health.
While addressing eating habits is vital to getting someone on track in recovery, focus on mental health is important to long-term success. A therapist can help uncover the underlying issues that contribute to the development of eating disorders and help a person utilize healthy coping mechanisms instead. Through therapy, clients can learn to replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy habits, learn to monitor their mood in relation to their diet, develop healthy methods of coping with stressors, and improve their relationship with others. All of these factors together can improve recovery outcomes by identifying what triggers the eating disorder and how to cope in a better way.
While there is no way to prevent an eating disorder from developing, there are ways you can reduce its likelihood through empowerment and example. Avoid engaging in healthy fad diets and focus on cultivating healthy, positive body image. Rather than criticizing yourself or the bodies of others, focus on positive messages that strengthen self-image while reducing the power of unhealthy misconceptions perpetuated through the media.
Regular check-ups with doctors can help you determine if there are any early indicators or signs that an eating disorder is developing. Being open and willing to discuss difficult topics can help you identify any causes for concern while also creating space for you to express your willingness to help. Creating a safe space to discuss difficult topics can make it easier for a person to accept help and treatment in the future.
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