An eating disorder is characterized by an extreme disruption in regular eating habits, whether it is eating too little or eating too much. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a person may start out eating less or more than usual, and then the habit spirals out of control. Someone with an eating disorder may also be overly concerned or distressed about weight or body shape.
Some types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Although eating disorders tend to manifest during teen years, they can also develop later in life. Both males and females are susceptible. It is not unusual for eating disorders to coexist with other anxiety disorders, depression or substance abuse. Eating disorders can be treated and are real illnesses. Although an eating disorder is a very serious condition, it is never too late to find treatment or learn how to help someone else.
Understanding Eating Disorders
An eating disorder can strike a person of any gender, race, age or body type. If you have, or someone you know has, an eating disorder, it is important to understand the biological and psychological causes, according to NIH Medline Plus, and that it is not about losing weight. It is also important to understand that eating disorders are treatable.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, millions of people in the United States develop eating disorders. Of those who have eating disorders, more than 90 percent are young adult women. It often starts out as strict dieting to achieve a lower weight. Then, the dieting triggers an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is suffered by 1 percent of adolescent girls. About 2 to 3 percent of female adolescents have bulimia nervosa.
Anorexia nervosa is the act of intentionally starving oneself. It typically develops around puberty and causes severe weight loss. People suffering from anorexia nervosa may appear emaciated but be convinced they are overweight. They will be obsessed with food and weight, and some will have strict exercise regiments. Females with anorexia nervosa will typically stop having menstrual periods, and males can become impotent.
Bulimia nervosa is characterized by the consumption of vast amounts of food followed by vomiting or some form of purging the body of food. This may take the form of diuretic or laxative abuse, using enemas, or exercising compulsively. The USDA says it is common for these people to diet between binges and purges. It also states that of the people with anorexia nervosa, half will develop bulimia. Other forms of eating disorders exist that are not otherwise classified; these are known as EDNOS. Some people refuse to admit they have eating disorders. In these instances, friends and family members can urge their loved ones to seek treatment and help them recognize their illnesses.
How to Diagnose an Eating Disorder
The NEDA website has an online eating disorder screening that can help you determine whether you have an eating disorder. The screening is anonymous and free. The NEDA believes that a low-pressure screening is vital in helping someone seek treatment, and this is a good step if you are not sure where to begin.
The NIMH lists some of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa as:
- Unwillingness to maintain a normal weight and tirelessly striving for thinness
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Loss of menstrual periods in females
- Severely restricted diet
- Distorted body image
The NIMH characterizes some symptoms of bulimia as:
- Osteopenia or osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
- Brittle nails and hair
- Anemia, weakness and muscle wasting
- Severe constipation
- Slowed breathing and pulse
- Dry, yellowish skin
- Fine hair growth all over the body
- Feeling cold all the time
- Feeling tired all the time
A doctor or therapist will be able to diagnose an eating disorder properly.
Steps You Can Take to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder
If you suspect an eating disorder in someone you love, educate yourself about the disorder. Then, talk to your friend. Let them know you care about what they are going through, and have a treatment resource available, such as a phone number for a counselor.
Talking to Someone With an Eating Disorder
When talking to someone with an eating disorder, keep in mind that the disorder is a coping mechanism and that denial is a psychological defense. The Counseling Center at Villanova advises that you offer continued friendship and support. Choose a time when your conversation won’t be interrupted, and do not criticize or judge your friend, but be sincere and direct when discussing your concerns. If you are confronted with denial, just try to plant a seed for recovery. Never promise to keep your friend’s secret if it means preventing them from getting help.
Adolescents and Teens
Knowing the causes of eating disorders and discussing healthy eating habits can help you protect your child. Although the exact causes of eating disorders are not known, the Mayo Clinic suggests the following factors put adolescents and teens at risk:
- Genetic and biological factors or traits such as anxiety or perfectionism
- Participating in activities that encourage low weight, such as ballet
- Low self-esteem
- Pressure from society
In addition, some early signs of a problem are dizziness, trouble concentrating, irritability and trouble sleeping.
Learning to Cope With Eating Disorders
Find a support group to help you learn to cope with your eating disorder. It is helpful to discuss your illness with others who can relate. According the Mayo Clinic, you should involve yourself in rewarding activities that interest you to boost your self-esteem.
Don’t diet or skip meals, and be realistic about what normal weight is rather than how the media portrays it. Know your own healthy weight and keep reminding yourself of it, and do not visit pro-eating-disorder websites because they can trigger relapses. You could also figure out what your triggers are and find ways to deal with them, and find positive role models in your life. Keeping a journal of your behaviors and feelings can help you discover a connection between them and the actions you take.
How to Treat an Eating Disorder
Treating an eating disorder varies from one person to another. Talk therapy and behavioral therapy are very effective for some, whereas others may need medications, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers. For some people, a combination of treatment methods is necessary for recovery.
Deciding Between Eating Disorder Solutions
The methods of treating eating disorders are tailored to individual circumstances and needs. Often, talk therapy and medication are effective. Individual, group and/or family psychotherapies are helpful for some. Nutritional counseling and maintaining good nutrition are very important for recovery, and medical care and monitoring may be necessary. Refraining from exercise and any behaviors of the illness, such as binging or purging, are paramount.
When deciding which solution is best, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality suggests you should have doctors who collaborate with each other. Your general medical condition should be assessed, and your safety and psychiatric status should be considered. Talk to your doctors about your concerns and medical history when deciding between eating disorder solutions.