What is an Eating Disorder?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders are defined as “illnesses in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.” Oftentimes, those that are dealing with an eating disorder grow preoccupied with thoughts surrounding food and their body weight. There are three major subsets of eating disorders: bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. In addition, many individuals struggle with Other Specified Food or Eating Disorder (OSFED), Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Orthorexia. The most common demographic of individuals who experience disordered eating are girls and women between the ages of 12 and 35. However, there has been a rise in the development of eating disorders in middle age in recent years.
Risk factors for eating disorders include neurobiological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. In addition, bullying, weight stigma, and personality traits can lead to the development of eating disorders. While there are personality characteristics specific to certain types of eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association there are five traits and temperaments that persons who struggle with any type of eating disorder share. These include high levels of perfectionism, cognitive inflexibility, harm avoidance, excessive self-doubt, and a high need for rules and symmetry. These traits are often seen in childhood prior to the development of eating disorders. Having any of these traits increases a person’s odds of developing an eating disorder by seven. A person who had all five of these traits is thirty-five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than someone who shows none of these traits (Anderluh et al., 2003).
Individuals with eating disorders often have co-occurring mental health disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorders. While many individuals with no prior family history of disordered eating may still develop the disease themselves, new evidence suggests that heredity could be a factor for some individuals.
Recovering from an Eating Disorder
If an individual is left untreated on both a physical and emotional level, they could develop potentially fatal conditions including but not limited to heart issues and malnutrition. If someone who is dealing with an eating disorder receives the necessary medical care, however, he or she may be able to regain healthy eating habits and heal not only physically but also psychologically.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the recovery journey for an eating disorder can take anywhere from months to years; furthermore, relearning coping skills and adequate eating habits often requires extensive support from certified healthcare professionals, family, as well as friends. And while relapsing during eating disorder recovery tends to be very common, moving forward is essential, though it may be slow. While eating disorder recovery is an arduous process, full recovery if possible for many.
Signs to Look Out For
NEDA lists a series of possible symptoms related to eating disorders. Common behavioral and emotional signs may include:
- A preoccupation with calories, food, weight, fat grams, carbohydrates, and dieting
- Behaviors and attitudes that point towards dieting, weight loss, and control of food becoming major concerns for an individual
- Recurrent dieting
- Extreme mood swings
- Great concern with one’s body shape and size
- Withdrawal from usual activities
- Withdrawal from friends
- Appearing uncomfortable eating around other people
- The refusal to eat specific foods, which can progress to restrictions against entire food groups (i.e. no carbohydrates)
- Skipping meals
- Food rituals (only eating a particular food group or food)
- Excessive chewing
- Not allowing certain foods to touch
- Taking small portions of food at regular meals
- Frequent checks in the mirror for supposed flaws in their appearance
Some physical manifestations of an eating disorder may include:
- Constantly feeling cold
- Issues with one’s sleep
- Noticeable fluctuations (both up and down) of weight
- Stomach cramps and other non-specific gastrointestinal issues such as constipation and acid reflux
- Difficulties concentrating
- Dizziness, particularly when one stands up
- Menstrual irregularities, such as missed periods or only experiencing a period when on hormonal contraceptives
- Abnormal laboratory results such as low hormone levels, anemia, low white and red blood cell counts, and low potassium
- Cuts and/or calluses across the top of finger joints, which could suggest inducing vomiting
- Dry hair and skin
- Brittle nails
- Fine hair on one’s body
- Muscle weakness
- Swelling around the salivary glands
- Discoloration of teeth and cavities, which may result from vomiting
- Impaired immunity
- Yellow skin (could be in the context of eating large amounts of carrots)
- Cold, mottled hands
- Swelling of feet
- Poor wound healing
If you or a loved one is experiencing disordered eating, we are here to help at Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists. You may contact us via phone (866-525-2766), email, or by filling out our contact form.