Eating disorders are a spectrum of conditions associated with unhealthy attitudes towards food, and these can impair health, affect wellbeing and diminish the quality of life.
Types of eating disorders
- Anorexia nervosa: an inordinate fear of gaining weight stops a sufferer from eating enough to maintain a healthy body. It is often combined with excessive amount of time exercising.
- Bulimia: a fear of gaining weight combined with excessive eating during short periods (binging). Feelings of guilt then lead to purging through induced vomiting, the use of laxatives or diuretics, an avoidance of food and intense periods of exercise. The thought of food is always on the bulimia sufferer’s mind and, consequently, the cycle repeats itself.
- Binge eating: loss of control leading to overeating, gorging with food rapidly. This is followed by feelings of extreme guilt and shame, leading to repetitive behaviour.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED): a variety of behaviour patterns and symptoms associated with food and weight control not having the specific symptoms of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. OSFED includes atypical anorexia (the individual with normal weight but symptoms of anorexia), atypical bulimia without regular binge-purge cycles, periodic binge eating, purging disorder (overuse of laxative and diuretics without binge-purge cycles), and night eating syndrome (when a person regularly wakes up at night to eat).
This condition is the least common of the eating disorders, and potentially the most resistant to treatment. It can become a debilitating condition with a potential risk of death.
Young adults and teenagers are especially at risk.
Suffers of anorexia deliberately keep their body weight at dangerously low levels for their age and height. They skip meals, eat very little, avoid any food they believe to be fattening and observe strict eating rituals. People with anorexia lie about their weight, and mislead others about their diet. They have an overbearing fear of gaining weight, and see losing additional weight as beneficial. They fail to admit to the unhealthy risks of their excessively low body weight. They tend to exercise excessively, purge, and take laxatives and diuretics in attempt to lose more weight.
People with anorexia nervosa will have very low weight for their age and height; they feel lethargic, cold, and dizzy with headaches. They suffer from abdominal pain, bloating and constipation. They have dry skin, hair loss on the scalp and a fine lanugo hair growth on the body. Women with anorexia often stop menstruating due to a shutdown of their hormonal system.
Anorexia patients often have depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and other mental health issues.
In the most severe cases patients with anorexia can develop multi-organ failure and die.
The main signs of bulimia are regular cycles of binge eating and subsequent purging.
A person with bulimia may also regularly take laxatives, engage in excessive exercise, and express a constant fear of putting on weight. The individual will repeatedly criticize their weight and body shape. Mood swings are common. A bulimic will have obsessive thoughts of food, combined with feelings of guilt and shame when eating.
Often bulimia sufferers will binge eat and purge in secret, and become antisocial if activities involve food. They feel a loss of control over their appetites and will engage in binging. They will feel fatigue, and will display puffiness in the face from a biochemical and electrolytes imbalance induced by purging. They will suffer from abdominal pains, and bloating. Due to their induced vomiting, they will suffer from sore throat due to the irritation from gastric acids, and may display calluses on the back of their hands where their teeth scraped during induced vomiting.
Bulimia is often associated with low self-esteem, self-harm and mental illness.
Binge eating disorder
BED involves regularly overeating to the point of discomfort, followed by feelings of guilt.
Binges are often planned in advance, and the person may buy an abundance of their special binge foods.
Men and women of any age can suffer from binge eating disorder, but the condition typically starts in the late teens or early 20s.
Binge eaters consume food quickly and in large quantities, engorging themselves, even when they are not hangry. They are secretive about it, and they feel guilt and shame. They further suffer from depression and low self-esteem. They are often overweight.
Treatment of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are complex psychological conditions, and no simple cures exist, but treatments are available, and recovery is possible. Through a combination of therapy, nutritional education and medical treatment, the symptoms of an eating disorder can be managed or eliminated. Unfortunately, only one in 10 people with an eating disorder receives treatment, but true recovery is possible. Early diagnosis and treatment significantly increase the chances of recovery.
Treatment for eating disorders will depend on the specifics of the problem, and needs to be tailored to each individual’s case. Generally, the goals of eating disorder treatments are to restore the person to a healthy weight, and to address the root psychological problem. Therapy may need to be continued over a significant period of time to prevent relapses. Due to the medical and psychological complexities of eating disorders, treatment requires the support of a multidisciplinary team, including:
- Cognitive behaviour therapy
- Nutritional education and counselling
- Medical treatment of associated conditions (malnourishment, low weight, anaemia, low blood pressure, heart problems, multi-organ failure)
- Psychotropic therapies (anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication)