The shadowy reality of the cultural health mantra “eat healthy” is that millions of people aren’t in control of what they eat. Rather, they are challenged with eating disorders, or what medical experts refer to as a “bio-psycho-social disease.” In America, eating disorders affect about 10 million men and 20 million women at some point in their lives, and are seriously compromising to those individuals’ physical and mental well-being—even deadly, in worst-case scenarios.
Those at highest risk for eating disorders include:
- Anyone with a family history of eating disorders
- Females (although rates of males with eating disorders are on the rise)
- Women with Type 1 diabetes
- Those with a history of anxiety
- Individuals being teased or bullied about weight
- LGBTQ individuals
- Individuals obsessed with body weight/body image
What is an eating disorder?
After several decades of research and analysis, experts conclude that eating disorders are not a choice. They’re the result of multiple factors that align and take root.
Biology plays a part, as does a history of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and/or social phobias. Environmental (societal) triggers also have a role, typically in the form of bullying, childhood teasing, an illness, and/or the media’s obsession with super-thin being the mainstream “body ideal.” When these factors are in alignment—or stack against one another—an eating disorder is a common outlet for an individual’s biological programming and psycho-emotional pain.
There are several different types of eating disorders
Anorexia Nervosa Anorexia nervosa is the most dangerous eating disorder, having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Characterized by a dramatic restriction in food intake, anorexics have a severe phobia of weight gain, which manifests in extreme weight loss and an inability to see the body in its starved state. What begins with cutting a few calories here and adding extra exercise there ends with becoming an obsession. Those challenged by anorexia nervosa become masters at avoiding food, playing with food to make it look like they’re eating, or lying about their eating habits to avoid having to eat. In some cases, both binging and purging can become part of the cycle.
- Continuous weight loss
- Dressing in layers to hide weight loss and stay warm
- Comments about being/feeling fat (even when painfully thin)
- Excessive exercise regiments
Binge Eating Binge eaters consume large quantities of food (often junk food) to the point of physical discomfort but without the same fixation on purging and/or exercise. They have no control over the process and can’t stop consuming a food product until it’s gone. Oftentimes, binge eaters consume their food in private as the result of shame and guilt surrounding the behavior.
- Large amounts of food disappear in a short amount of time
- Candy or other food wrappers appear in large quantities in trash or hiding places
- Stealing or hoarding food in strange places
- Fear or discomfort eating food in front of others
- Sporadic and repetitive attempts at diets
Bulimia Nervosa Individuals suffering from bulimia nervosa share many symptoms with those struggling with binge eating. The major differentiator between the two is that bulimics evacuate the food they’ve consumed, typically by self-induced vomiting. Individuals with bulimia nervosa also struggle with a compromised body image, along with compounded senses of shame and guilt that accompany the binging and purging processes.
- Obsession about weight and body image
- The same signs associated with binge eating with the addition of disappearing after meals (often to the bathroom or a hidden bucket in bedroom to purge)
- Strange rituals around food (only eats certain food groups; won’t let food touch on plate)
- Chronic use of chewing gum or mints to hide the smell of vomit
These are three of the main eating disorders. There are also others, including avoidant/restrictive eating habits, purging disorders (purging without binging), night eating syndrome and others. Eating disorders can be treated, but—like any illness or addiction—the recovery period requires a tremendous amount of love, patience and diligence.
If you suspect that you or someone you care about has an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA) Parent, Family & Friends Network to learn more and to seek assistance as you navigate this very tender and emotional process.