Eating disorders are marked by an unhealthy relationship with food. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme weight loss, excessive dieting and exercise, and distorted body image. People with anorexia never see themselves as thin even when their appear emaciated.
Those who suffer from bulimia nervosa experience cycles of overeating, called a “binge”, followed by vomiting or other methods of purging to ease feelings of guilt from overeating.
People who have an eating disorder may experience symptoms of both anorexia and bulimia. It is important to know that eating disorders are driven by unmet emotional needs. Low self-esteem, need for perfection or a lack of sense of control may all contribute to the development of an eating disorder. An eating disorder becomes a self-destructive way to cope with the unpleasant emotions and unmet needs.
Eating disorders can be easy to hide so it’s crucial to know how to recognize them so you can get treatment quickly.
3 Important Facts
- Eating disorders usually develop during adolescence and early adulthood.
- In the U.S., approximately 20 million American women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder.
- Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Signs to look for
- An extreme fear of gaining weight
- Excessive exercise and calorie restriction
- Talking about being fat
- Dramatic weight loss
- Wearing loose or baggy clothes to hide the body
- Refusing to eat meals
- Refusing to eat calories from fat, carbs, or anything perceived as unhealthy
- A fine covering of soft, thin hair develops all over the body
- Evidence of binge-eating, such as finding large amounts of food wrappers in the trash
- Evidence of purging, such as trips to the bathroom after meals or sounds or smells of vomiting
- Skipping meals or eating very small portions
- Constant dieting
- Scarring on knuckles from inducing vomiting
Eating disorders are complex and devastating. Left untreated, they can lead to serious physical consequences and even fatalities. Because eating disorders are mental illnesses, it’s important to work with a mental health professional as well as a medical doctor. A mental health professional will work with the individual suffering from an eating disorder to identify the underlying psychological causes and work through painful thoughts and feelings. Only by understanding the unmet emotional needs driving the eating disorder can an effective treatment plan be created and implemented.
If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, approach them calmly in a safe and private place to share your concerns. Offer your observations gently and let them know you’re there to listen. Try not to use shaming language such as, “You’re not eating enough!” or, “You need to change!” Instead, use first-person statements, such as, “I am concerned by what I’m seeing.” They may react with anger or defensiveness. If that’s the case, let them know you’re available and give them a little space. However, don’t give up; it’s important to return to the conversation.
The good news is that with treatment, anorexics and bulimics can recover physically and emotionally. Don’t give up hope!
Common Q and A
- What causes an eating disorder?
A combination of factors can lead to the development of an eating disorder. Biological factors, social pressures to be thin and attractive, unmet emotional needs, and other factors all play a role in an eating disorder.
- What personality traits are common in people with eating disorders?
It varies from person to person but people with low self-esteem, a need to be perfect, a desire to please others and sensitivity to criticism are more inclined to develop an eating disorder.
- What is the outlook for someone recovering from an eating disorder?
As long as treatment is obtained in time, anorexics and bulimics can make a full recovery. Depending on the severity of the situation, anorexics may require inpatient treatment to carefully monitor weight. During treatment, patients are taught to challenge irrational thoughts about weight and self-esteem.
- What are some of the physical consequences of an eating disorder?
Eating disorders have serious consequences for health. Left untreated, they can lead to organ failure or death. Other physical effects include dry skin and hair, fatigue and fainting, muscle loss and weakness, reduction in bone density, hair loss, stomach upset and constipation, ulcers, pancreatitis and tooth decays from chronic vomiting or laxative use.
- Where can I learn more about supporting someone with an eating disorder?
Talk to a mental health professional who can point you to resources to help you support your child or loved one. Also, the National Eating Disorders Association provides in-depth information about eating disorders, and provides a toolkit for parents.