An eating disorder can be characterised as a psychological disorder which affects a person’s physical and emotional health, centring around a complex and difficult relationship with food; this can be in terms of the individual’s thoughts alone, or of their thoughts and actions.
Someone who suffers from an eating disorder will typically find their anxieties around food entering into their daily life and interfering with their routine. It is estimated that over 1.6 million people in the United Kingdom suffer from eating disorders.
What are the different types of eating disorders?
There are a wide variety of different eating disorders, but some of the most prevalent ones include :
1) Anorexia Nervosa (and Atypical Anorexia),
2) Bulimia Nervosa
3) Binge-Eating Disorder.
Anorexia Nervosa is where a person controls and restricts their calorie intake dramatically, in an attempt to keep their weight as low as possible. People who suffer from this type of eating disorder often hold an extremely negative and distorted view of themselves.
This is one of the reasons it can be better to avoid commenting on an anorexic sufferer’s appearance, because they may find it hard to really hear what you are saying, without distorting it to match their current belief system.
People who suffer from anorexia may also engage in ritualistic exercises, such as an excessive amount of sit-ups or push-ups on a daily basis.
These are further attempts to ward off their biggest fear — gaining weight — and can be particularly dangerous for extreme cases, putting their body under further strain. Health issues can include cardiac complications, seizures, low bone density and fertility issues.
A typical Anorexia is also a recognised disorder, similar to anorexia in terms of distorted thought patterns, and in the impact it has on a person’s daily life, but differing in terms of the fact the sufferer’s weight remains ‘healthy’.
They may well even look healthy but inside, they suffer in very similar ways to people with anorexia nervosa. This can make it difficult for a person to seek professional help, as they do not always feel ‘recognised’ as having an eating disorder.
It is vital that people with both atypical anorexia and anorexia nervosa receive support and treatment, in order to avoid their condition becoming life-threatening.
Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by a person consuming a large amount of food (bingeing), and then trying to reverse the physical and emotional feelings that result from this, by vomiting (purging), taking laxatives, exercising excessively, or not allowing themselves to eat again for prolonged periods of time.
Bulimia shares with anorexia a preoccupation with physical appearance and the desire to keep weight down. It is extremely distressing for the individual as they recognise the binge-and-purge routine that they are stuck in, but feel unable to address it effectively.
It can also be difficult for others to intervene because they may not notice there is an issue: someone suffering from bulimia may look normal, or sometimes even slightly overweight. Even if the sufferer’s weight is stable, bulimia can lead to a variety of serious health problems, such as tooth decay, gum disease, erosion of the tooth’s enamel (from the acidity caused by repeated vomiting), and even life-threatening heart issues.
While Binge-Eating Disorder is not an eating disorder necessarily spoken about enough, it is an extremely serious issue for many people.
This condition can be similar to bulimia, but without purging the food after having consumed it. When so many ‘healthy eating’ programmes target weight-loss and send the clear message that people must be stricter on themselves, this does not always address why they are overeating in the first place.
Many people who suffer with overeating disorders cannot simply ‘stop eating so much’.
They have a genuine compulsive urge to consume a large amount of food and this can be just as distressing and physically dangerous as other eating disorders. For example, it can cause obesity, sleep apnea, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis too.
Emotionally, there is usually a reason behind this disorder, whether it is low self-esteem, past trauma, or a newly established coping strategy.
It is crucial that individuals seek help so that they can get to the root of their problem.
Signs that your loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder
It can be difficult to notice the early signs of an eating disorder, and not all signs will apply for everyone, but some things to look out for in a loved one may be:
- A drastic change in their weight;
- Negative comments about their appearance, and their weight in particular;
- An eagerness to prepare food for others, but not to consume it themselves;
- Reluctance to eat in front of others, and a defensive attitude when asked about eating generally;
- Low mood and low self-esteem;
- Seeming detached or permanently drawn and tired;
Extended periods of time spent in the bathroom, especially directly after mealtimes.
If you fear a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, it is best to stay focused on the concern that you feel for their well-being, as opposed to making specific comments about their appearance, as we can otherwise risk colluding with what the eating disorder is already doing.
This can be very difficult for friends and families, but it is important to remain as open as possible to someone experiencing this eating disorder, so that they can seek help out, should they feel able to, and can then tackle the underlying cause of the illness.
Seeking help for an eating disorder
If someone is struggling with an eating disorder, the earlier the therapeutic intervention can be delivered to them, the better their chance of recovery.
Initially, it is a good idea to make an appointment with a doctor if you think you may have an eating disorder yourself.
If you feel like someone you care about may be suffering from an eating disorder, you can encourage them to seek professional help.
In a safe and therapeutic environment, individuals can explore their current thought processes and eating patterns.
Once there is a greater level of understanding about these beliefs, they can then move on to challenge them at a pace that feels manageable for them. Alongside this, the individual can begin to learn more positive ways of seeing themselves, and techniques to manage the anxiety that change can inevitably bring about.
Recovery from an eating disorder is a process that is unique for every individual, as there are specific causes, symptoms, and triggers for each person.
It is important to address these in order to help the person heal from their past pain and to arrive at a state of acceptance of themselves.