Conversations about waistlines and how much you weigh have become commonplace today. But if this has become an obsession, it’s time to check for a more serious condition known as an eating disorder.
Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorders can seriously impact physical health, emotional wellness, productivity, and relationships.
They can even be life-threatening. Women and adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to eating disorders. Watching out for the risk factors and warning signs can help save someone’s life.
Our lives revolve around food. We can’t live without it, after all. And when health is a concern for so many people, the topic of food is often punctuated with concerns about calories and body weight. But when weighing yourself becomes an obsession, a more serious condition may be at play.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, an eating disorder can display itself through a preoccupation with food and weight. Furthermore, statistics state that at least 30 million Americans suffer from some type of eating disorder. It’s responsible for at least one death every 62 minutes. Clearly, eating disorders are not to be taken casually.
It is a general misconception that an eating disorder is a fad or a lifestyle choice that people will get over in time. On the contrary, it is a psychological condition that seriously impacts physical health, emotional wellness, productivity, and relationships. It can even be life-threatening, stressing the importance of both prevention and treatment.
TYPES OF EATING DISORDERS
Not all eating disorders are the same. They can vary in symptoms, habits, and severity. According to the American Psychological Association, the following eating disorders are the most common.
Anorexia nervosa: People with anorexia have the perception that they are fat or overweight – even when they are dangerously underweight. Eventually, they become obsessed with weighing themselves. Anorexics also tend to eat very little or consume very few specific foods. This particular disease accounts for the highest mortality rate among all mental disorders.
Bulimia nervosa: Unlike anorexics, people with bulimia maintain a relatively normal weight. They frequently feel the need to binge-eat, typically consuming unusually large quantities of food. They compensate this habit by forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors.
Binge-eating disorder: This is the most common eating disorder in the US. Binge eaters eat more food than the average person, demonstrating a lack of control on what (or how much) they eat. Unlike bulimia nervosa, these episodes are not followed by a purging episode.
As a result, people with binge-eating disorder are often overweight or obese.
There are many eating disorders on the spectrum, though. The following types are less common.
Pica: This disorder is marked by a compulsive habit of eating, chewing, or licking non-food items or foods containing no nutrition. Examples include cotton or clay.
Night-Eating Syndrome: Characterized by a lack of appetite during the day, people with this disorder have an abnormal appetite at night. This leads to binge eating, excessive eating (hyperphagia), and insomnia.
Rumination Disorder: Symptoms include repeatedly regurgitating food followed by re-chewing and re-swallowing or spitting it out.
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED) and Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED): Individuals with OSFED or UFED do not show clear signs and symptoms of one eating disorder. However, regardless of the variant, the condition causes emotional and psychological distress.
ARE WOMEN MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO EATING DISORDERS?
Eating disorders can develop in people of all genders. However, studies show that women are at a much higher risk. In fact, it is estimated that eating disorders in women occur 2.5 times more than they do in men.
According to research, women are 3 times more likely to experience anorexia nervosa in their lifetime than men. Similarly, women are 5 times more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than men. Generally, women with eating disorders usually have an unnatural drive to be thin. This obsession likely stems from distorted perceptions of an “ideal body” and dissatisfaction with their own body weight and shape.
Unfortunately, media portrayal of the “perfect” body type only reinforces these perceptions in women. This is especially true for adolescent girls. For example, young girls that play with slim dolls are introduced to the distorted perception of the “ideal” body.
The fact that eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness in adolescent girls can’t be a coincidence.
Around 35 to 57 percent of adolescent girls use methods like fasting, self-induced vomiting, and crash dieting. They may also take diet pills or laxatives to maintain body weight. Those who are overweight are also more likely to engage in these extreme methods.
IT’S NOT AN ALL GIRL THING
Although data shows that women are more prone to eating disorders, it does not mean that men aren’t susceptible. Specifically, binge eating is more common in men than in women. However, due to the cultural assumption that eating disorders are a “girl thing”, men with eating disorders are less likely to acknowledge symptoms. As a result, they tend to seek help too late or not at all. As one study found, men with problematic eating behaviors were less likely to seek help than women with similar issues.
EATING DISORDER RISK FACTORS
While many are exposed to the same media-driven idealization of body image, only some develop eating disorders. And though there isn’t a single cause for eating disorders, research has uncovered some common threads. According to the US Office of Women’s Health, the following triggers may contribute to eating disorder development.
Personality Traits: Many people with eating disorders also have a poor self-image along with feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. Each disorder is also associated with specific traits. For instance, anorexics tend to be perfectionists, while bulimics are usually impulsive.
Social and Cultural Pressures: Cultural norms of body weight and size target both men and women. These assumptions and expectations value people based on their physical appearance. In many countries, extreme slimness is a cultural ideal for women. It’s often a benchmark for physical attractiveness. Unfortunately, this obsession to be thin can drive a number of women to develop eating disorders. Additionally, some sports (like gymnastics) can contribute by emphasizing low weight or certain body image.
Biology: Scientists are exploring the possibility that biological factors such as genes and hormones might influence the development of eating disorders.
Family and Peers: The opinions and attitudes of close family members and friends can severely influence a person’s perspective. Repeatedly teasing an individual about his or her body can be a trigger.
Traumas or Life Changes: Traumas such as rape, abuse, or the death of a loved one can also increase risk of an eating disorder. Stressful events (like starting a new job) or monumental happy situations (such as giving birth) can also lead to disorders. In both cases, the individual’s social role and body image are significantly changed.
WARNING SIGNS OF EATING DISORDERS
While there are no clear signs of an eating disorder, organizations like the American Psychiatric Association share that there are red flags to look out for.
– Excessive talk and obsession about weight, calories, and fat
– Unhealthy eating habits like constantly choosing low-calorie options, skipping meals, binge eating and then starving, and making excuses to skip meals
– Excessive exercise
– Intense self-criticism and expressing complaints that he or she is fat
– Frequent inspection of his or her body
– Fidgety behavior, mood swings, irritability, and touchiness
– Defensive or upset attitude about eating
– Self-harm, such as cutting or burning flesh
HOW CAN YOU HELP SOMEONE WITH AN EATING DISORDER?
People with eating disorders tend to withdraw from social circles. Sometimes, they may put on a normal facade, making it difficult for others to catch on. If you notice even a few symptoms, consider reaching out. Early intervention is the best course of action, making it easier to tackle the problem.
Yet, keep in mind that professional help is necessary to tackle an eating disorder. It’s not something that you can just talk a person out of. But there are some things you can do. We give a few quick pointers.
– If you are a parent and your child is below 18, don’t wait to get professional help. Take your child to a physician and follow their advice. It’s the best thing you can do for your child.
– Take some time to understand eating disorders. There are plenty of resources available both online and offline.
– Be open, truthful, and honest with the person you are trying to help. Tell them your concerns, but don’t preach.
– Don’t manipulate or be manipulated. Avoid tactics like emotional blackmail.
– Be firm but gentle.
– If you find out that your friend has an eating disorder, don’t keep it a secret. Don’t promise that you will keep it quiet, either.
– Remember, expressing concern is your only responsibility. Recovery depends on the patient. Be supportive and don’t blame yourself for their actions.