One morning, a woman catches her reflection in the mirror, and she doesn’t like who she sees looking back at her. She decides, in that moment, to change her diet and lose weight.
As she begins to lose weight, people compliment her on her willpower and her beauty. She begins to feel stronger and more powerful, so she chooses to lose even more. Soon, her desire to lose weight consumes her, and she cannot be convinced to gain weight, even though her health is at risk.
A second woman also decides that she must lose weight, and she develops a list of foods that she can and cannot eat. As the day drags on, however, the woman finds her stress level mounting and she cannot seem to find any peace. She heads home and eats all of the food in her cupboards in a blind binge. Later, she feels so terrible about this binge that she goes to the bathroom and makes herself throw up all of the food she’s eaten.
The first woman described is dealing with anorexia, while the second woman is struggling with bulimia. The stories may be different, but the underlying pathology is the same. People with eating disorders like this develop an unhealthy relationship with food, and they put their health at risk due to these disorders.
Teen boys and adult men can also develop eating disorders, but women and girls are often at the highest risk for developing the problem.
According to the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED), 10 percent or more teen girls or adult women have symptoms of an eating disorder. The AED also reports that the incidence of eating disorders is on the rise.
People with eating disorders often have trouble expressing themselves, and they may have a history of troubled relationships with others. Sometimes, they’ve been victims of violence, and other times, they haven’t developed the coping skills they need to deal with problems in a healthy way. For these people, an extreme change, such as the death of a loved one, could cause the person to feel as though life is out of control. They may be unable to express and process these emotions. By losing weight, the person is asserting control once more. A study published in the journal Psychological Bulletinalso found that patients developed eating disorders in response to extreme stress. The people studied reported feeling as though they could not meet the demands placed upon them by others, so they turned to food to help distract them from their negative feelings and heightened emotions. For some, stress and eating disorders go hand in hand.
Other people develop eating disorders in response to relentless teasing from friends and family about weight.
They may begin to lose weight in order to be healthy, but then become addicted to the power of the weight loss, and the positive comments they receive about their looks. This is a point worth stressing. In our society, women who are thin are often considered powerful and healthy, while women who are overweight are often considered slow and lazy. The more weight a woman loses, the more compliments she may receive, and she may continue this unhealthy pattern of weight loss to her own detriment.
Types of Eating Disorders
Anorexia is one of the most common forms of eating disorders. People with anorexia:
Are often hungry and obsessed with food, but they will not eat
Believe they are overweight, even when they are underweight
May weigh themselves several times per day
Eat only low-calorie foods such as lettuce, celery and popcorn
People who have anorexia may lose such extreme amounts of weight that their bodies do not have enough fuel to function, and they may faint frequently or seem dizzy and unsteady most of the time. They may have low body temperatures, and have goose bumps or shiver. They may develop fine, downy hair all over their bodies, and the hair on their heads may grow brittle or even fall out.
The symptoms of anorexia are more than just cosmetic, however. People struggling with anorexia are literally starving themselves to death. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people with anorexia have a death rate 12 times higher than people who do not have anorexia. As people with anorexia deny their bodies food, they develop chemical imbalances that can interfere with the normal functioning of organs. People with anorexia may develop kidney disease or heart disease, and they can die from these conditions. It’s a terrible and serious disease.
Bulimia is closely related to anorexia, and some people move between anorexia and bulimia throughout their lives. A person with bulimia may also make strict rules about what sorts of food he or she may eat, but that person may eat compulsively in a binge once or twice per day. In order to avoid gaining weight from this sort of eating, the person will vomit or use laxatives to purge calories from the body.
Someone with bulimia may not seem overly thin or dangerously unhealthy, but the disorder is far from benign.
Vomiting frequently can do severe damage to the throat and teeth, and using laxatives compulsively can cause extreme harm to the bowels. The nutritional imbalances caused by the lack of nutrition can also lead to heart and kidney disease in people with bulimia. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, people with bulimia also have serious problems with depression. In fact, many of the people studied had symptoms consistent with clinical depression. These symptoms can also be debilitating, and could lead to suicide.
While most people associate eating disorders with extreme thinness, this isn’t the only form of the disease in existence. Some people with eating disorders eat large amounts of food and do not purge that food from their systems. This eating disorder is known as binge eating disorder.
People with binge eating disorder may:
Eat when they are not hungry
Eat until they feel uncomfortable
Feel guilty or disgusted about their eating habits
Eat large amounts of food incredibly quickly
People with binge eating disorder may develop diabetes or heart disease, due to their increased weight, and they may also feel significant levels of depression. Sometimes, they may even be stigmatized by their friends and family members due to their weight, and this can push them to eat even more. They may also develop chronic back and knee pain as they carry this extra weight from place to place.
Spotting an Eating Disorder
Teens often want to lose weight and improve their appearance. After all, the teen years are a time when people are often judged by the way they look, and teens frequently try to improve their appearance in order to move up the social ladder. It can be difficult for parents to discern the difference between teen anxiety, dieting and true eating disorders. While the symptoms can vary from disorder to disorder and teen to teen, in general, these signs could be cause for concern:
The teen engages in frequent, excessive exercising.
Rather than eating, the teen pushes food around the plate.
The teen avoids eating in front of the family.
Large quantities of food are missing, or conversely, the teen seems to eat nothing at all.
The teen gains or loses a large amount of weight.
Spotting the disorders in an adult may be a bit more difficult, especially if you don’t live with the person and you can’t monitor how much that person is or is not eating. In general, however, people who seem to gain or lose a large amount of weight and who seem to spend a significant amount of time talking about food or the calorie content of food may have a problem. Coworkers may refuse to eat in front of others, or they may head straight to the restroom after a meal in order to purge the food they have eaten. The person may seem depressed or down most of the time, and the person may also spend a significant amount of time looking in the mirror or asking you about his or her weight or outward appearance.
What to Do
Eating disorders can take a serious toll, and they cannot be allowed to progress unchecked.
Treatment does work, and many people with eating disorders can recover. They must know, however, that treatment is available.This is where family members and friends can have a great impact. By staging an intervention and discussing the eating disorder and the need for treatment, they can help the person begin to realize the impact of the disease and begin to accept the idea of treatment. A trained interventionist can help the family develop an intervention that is humane, thoughtful and helpful.
It’s the best thing a family can do to help someone they love, as the person will often enter a treatment program at the end of a properly performed intervention.