Eating Disorders

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 24 - March 1.

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According to the National Eating Disorders Association, over 30 million people will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. ‘Eating disorder’ is a term that describes illnesses that are characterized by irregular eating habits and severe distress or concern about body weight or shape. The most common forms of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder and affect both females and males. While these are the most common forms of eating disorders, they are not the only types. Additional subtypes of each different eating disorder such as the restrictive type or binge/purging type of anorexia are also possible eating disorders to develop.

While eating disorders may affect anyone regardless of age or gender, they typically develop during the teen years or young adulthood. One’s risk of developing an eating disorder depends on multiple factors including psychological, physical, social, and environmental. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, if a family member has had an eating disorder, an individual’s risk of developing an eating disorder could be higher as eating disorders can run in the family. In addition, eating disorders commonly coexist with other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, substance abuse, or depression.

The first of the most common eating disorders is anorexia nervosa, more commonly known as anorexia. Individuals with anorexia will severely limit the quantity of food they consume and view themselves as overweight even when they are at a healthy weight or underweight. Some individuals with the disorder also exercise compulsively, purge or self-induce vomiting, use laxatives, and/or binge eat. Anorexia can have damaging health effects, such as brain damage, multi-organ failure, bone loss, heart difficulties, and infertility. The risk of death is highest in individuals with this disease.

The second most common eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, commonly known as bulimia. Bulimia is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging or self-induced vomiting. The binge eating and purging cycle is typically done in secret, causing feelings of shame, guilt, and lack of control.

Still, not all individuals who suffer from bulimia engage in self-induced vomiting. A few examples of non-purging behaviors include excessive exercise or extreme use of laxatives. These additional behaviors can make bulimia very difficult to diagnose. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain what is considered a healthy or relatively normal weight, unlike anorexia nervosa. However, like anorexia nervosa, bulimia can result in serious health issues. Bulimia can affect the digestive system, an individual’s oral health, the heart, and other organs.

The third of the most commonly known types of eating disorders is binge eating disorder, commonly known as BED. Binge eating disorder is characterized by frequent episodes of binge eating or compulsive overeating. Unlike bulimia, episodes of binge eating are not followed by compensatory behaviors, such as purging, fasting, or excessive exercise. Individuals with binge eating disorder often are overweight or obese and are at risk of developing diabetes and serious cardiovascular issues.

While those three are the most commonly known types of eating disorders, several lesser known types exist. Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Individuals with orthorexia are typically not focused on losing weight. There is also the addition of eating disorders not otherwise specified, or EDNOS. EDNOS refers to eating disorders that display some of the characteristics of other disorders but the behaviors of which do not fit the full criteria of one of those disorders. Pica is characterized by eating items that are not typically thought of as food and that do not contain nutritional value, such as hair, dirt, and paint chips. Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or ARFID, is similar to anorexia. Both disorders involve limitations in the amount of food consumed, but unlike anorexia, ARFID does not involve any distress about body shape or size. An individual with ARFID does not consume enough calories to grow and develop properly or to maintain basic body function.

As previously mentioned, a multitude of factors can put an individual at risk for developing an eating disorder. Some of these factors can include genetics, irregular hormone functions, a negative body image or poor self-esteem, and a dysfunctional family dynamic. Professions and careers that promote being thin and weight loss, aesthetically oriented sports, trauma, and peer pressure among friends and co-workers can also put an individual at a higher risk to develop an eating disorder.

There will always be several warning signs that someone might be suffering from an eating disorder, but the signs aren’t always very obvious. In addition, the signs can vary from person to person and depend on which disorder, or disorders, they have. The most common signs include an obsession with calories and fat contents of food, avoidance of social functions, constant weight fluctuations, and odd eating habits: binge eating or eating very little, eating in secrecy or hiding/hoarding food. It’s commonly believed that an individual has to be underweight to have an eating disorder, but that always isn’t the case. Other warning signs include being uncomfortable eating around others, refusing to eat certain foods, difficulties concentrating, feeling cold all the time, or food rituals: eating only a particular food or food group, excessive chewing, or not allowing foods to touch. There are still many other warning signs not listed.

Treatment may be met with resentment, fear, or denial. Individuals feel that by achieving their “ideal weight,” they can resolve their disordered eating. According to Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, between 20 and 30 percent of people who enter treatment drop out too soon and relapse. A relapse is a deterioration in someone’s state of health after a temporary improvement. There are several different types of treatment depending on the severity and the health circumstances of the disorder. Some individuals need serious medical treatment requiring hospitalization so that health problems can also be addressed, while others may seek treatment in a non-hospital environment, group therapy, medical care, and nutrition support.

Eating disorders can have several different lifelong health effects, so it’s important to seek help if you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder. If you suspect a friend or loved one of having an eating disorder, it is important to talk to them about it. This can be very difficult, but it’s an important step of helping someone. When you talk with an individual, it’s crucial that the two of you talk in a private place and remain completely honest when talking. In addition, you must remain supportive and understanding. You can also try to encourage them to seek help on their own, but most times the individual will believe that they don’t need any help. It may appear difficult to know when to tell someone else about your concerns, but you can’t wait until the situation is so severe that the individual’s life is in danger. People you could talk to include the school nurse, trusted adults, and doctors.

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