Sign Up

A Closer Look at Eating Disorders

Written by Emily Pazel

As we live in a fast-paced, appearance-focused society, the prevalence of eating disorders has become a growing concern for many globally. At least 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder at some point during their life, according to the National Association of Anoreix Nerovse and Associated Disorders (ANAD). A large misconception behind eating disorders is that it's a lifestyle choice, made popular through television or social media as a peer pressure tactic to lose weight and be more accepted by others. However, eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that go beyond concerns about body weight and shape. It's an illness that impacts individuals physically, emotionally, and socially, causing severe harm to their overall well-being, and can often be fatal.

As research continues to expand and we learn more about eating disorders, professionals can shed light on these conditions from an earlier start and help with treatment and therapy options sooner. By understanding the complexities of these disorders, we can help foster compassion, support, and effective interventions for those affected by this terrible illness. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at eating disorders, potential causes, and what types of treatment might be available to someone fighting through this.

Defining Eating Disorders

Photo of person staring at plate with a single piece of broccoli on it

Eating disorders are life-threatening mental illnesses characterized by persistent disturbances in eating patterns, distorted body image, and an intense preoccupation with weight and shape. While anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the most commonly known types, others include avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), rumination disorder, and pica. Each disorder has unique features, but they all share a common thread of a dysfunctional relationship with food, body, and self.

Eating disorders, according to the ANAD, are one of the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdoses, and cause over 10,000 deaths each year. Several factors contribute to the development of eating disorders. These factors can be broadly categorized into biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors:

  • Biological factors: Research suggests that eating disorders could have a genetic component. Certain genetic factors can increase susceptibility to developing an eating disorder. An imbalance in neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine can potentially contribute to the development of eating disorders by influencing mood, appetite, and impulse control.
  • Psychological factors: Individuals with low self-esteem may develop eating disorders due to distorted self-image, unrealistic standards of perfection, desire for control, fear of failure, societal pressure, media influence, body dissatisfaction, and difficulty managing emotions.
  • Sociocultural factors: The media, fashion, and entertainment industries promoting thinness as an ideal body type can significantly impact body image and contribute to eating disorders. Societal pressure to conform to narrow beauty standards can lead to disordered eating patterns, while negative comments, teasing, or weight-related pressures from peers or family members can contribute to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors. Cultural norms and expectations can also influence the development of eating disorders.

It is essential to understand that eating disorders are complex and the factors that contribute to them interact and influence each other. A comprehensive understanding of these factors is necessary to provide effective treatment and support for those affected. Since people with eating disorders are at a higher risk for suicide and medical complications, it is crucial to seek treatment early enough to help with the recovery process, which is possible.

Impacts, Treatments & Beyond

Photo of a woman with an eating disorder being consoled by a counselor

Eating disorders have far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the physical symptoms. Individuals battling these disorders often experience severe health complications, including malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, heart problems, gastrointestinal issues, and hormonal disruptions. Moreover, the mental and emotional toll is immense, leading to anxiety, depression, social isolation, and reduced quality of life. In severe cases, eating disorders can be life-threatening, emphasizing the urgency for early detection and intervention.

Eating disorders manifest through various physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. The symptoms may vary depending on the type of eating disorder. Here are some common symptoms associated with different types of eating disorders:

Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Significant weight loss or refusal to maintain a healthy weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat
  • Distorted body image and an unrealistic perception of one's body size
  • Restrictive eating patterns, such as severely limiting food intake or avoiding certain food groups
  • Excessive exercise
  • Obsession with counting calories, food, or weight
  • Withdrawal from social activities and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Fatigue, dizziness, and fainting due to malnutrition
  • Development of fine hair (lanugo) on the body and thinning of hair on the scalp
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods (in females)

Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating, characterized by consuming large amounts of food within a short period
  • Feeling a lack of control over eating during binge episodes
  • Compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, fasting, or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Frequent fluctuations in weight
  • Dental issues, including enamel erosion and tooth decay due to stomach acid exposure from vomiting
  • Swollen salivary glands (enlarged parotid glands) resulting in a puffy face
  • Chronic sore throat and gastrointestinal problems
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-disgust after binge-eating episodes

Binge Eating Disorder:

  • Frequent episodes of consuming large amounts of food, often rapidly and to the point of discomfort
  • Feeling a lack of control over eating during binge episodes
  • Eating even when not physically hungry and eating in secrecy
  • Eating more rapidly than usual and eating until feeling excessively full
  • Distress, guilt, and shame associated with binge eating
  • Eating alone due to embarrassment about food quantities or habits
  • Frequently dieting or engaging in weight cycling
  • Weight fluctuations and potential obesity-related health problems

It's important to note that these symptoms are not exhaustive, and individuals with eating disorders may experience a combination of these symptoms or display unique variations. If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, seeking professional help is crucial for diagnosis, treatment, and support.

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible with appropriate professional help and support. Treatment typically involves a multidisciplinary approach, including therapy, nutritional counseling, medical monitoring, and, in some cases, medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and family-based treatment (FBT) are among the evidence-based therapies commonly used to address underlying psychological issues and promote healthy eating habits.

Creating a compassionate and understanding environment is crucial for individuals battling eating disorders. Friends, family, and society can contribute significantly to the recovery process by promoting body positivity, refraining from judgmental comments, and avoiding stigmatization. Education and awareness campaigns can help dispel myths, enhance empathy, and encourage early intervention. It is essential to remember that eating disorders are not a choice but rather complex mental health conditions that require empathy, support, and specialized care.

Eating disorders are not simply about food or appearances. They are debilitating illnesses that affect millions of people worldwide. By increasing awareness, eradicating misconceptions, and providing a supportive environment, we can help individuals affected by eating disorders find their path to recovery. It is time to break the silence and foster a society where mental well-being and self-acceptance are prioritized. Together, we can combat the shadows of eating disorders and create a brighter, healthier future for all.

Try CEUfast today!