What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorder is the diagnosis given for the multifaceted thoughts and behaviors which attack the emotional, cognitive, spiritual and physical aspects of one’s health and well-being. Eating disorders are damaging and unforgiving conditions expressed by extreme [emotional, physical, and psychological] dimensions of weight and food issues in both men and women. The disorders, insidious and destructive, are the result of misguided coping strategies to deal with life problems. Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating/compulsive overeating.
Anorexia Nervosa: self-starvation and a refusal to eat or maintain a healthy or normal weight for one’s age, size, height, and activity level; an intense fear of weight gain and distorted body image; the loss of three consecutive menstrual periods; and preoccupation with body weight and shape.
Bulimia Nervosa: secretive and repetitive episodes of binge eating (eating large amounts of food in a short time frame) and purging (getting rid of food by vomiting, laxative abuse, diet pills, diuretics, excessive exercise, and fasting); feelings of being out of control; constant dieting; and preoccupation with body weight and shape.
Binge Eating/Compulsive Overeating: episodes of impulsive gorging or continuous overeating, and periods of fasting or dieting. Body weight varies from normal to mild, moderate, or severe obesity.
What causes an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders may begin with preoccupations with food, weight, and body shape but most often originate from a combination of more complex underlying issues that are psychological, interpersonal, genetic, social, and spiritual. Eating disorders are painfully destructive attempts to cope with troubled relationships, with both others and self, and to feel a sense of control in one’s life. Feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, and loneliness are common.
PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS include low self-esteem, tendencies toward perfectionism, depression, anxiety, anger, emptiness or loneliness, and feelings of lack of control in life and/or a sense of inadequacy.
INTERPERSONAL FACTORS include a difficulty in identifying and expressing feelings, family discord and troubled relationships, unrealistic family expectations for achievement, a history of being ridiculed based on body shape or weight, and a history of abuse (sexual, physical, or emotional).
SOCIAL FACTORS include cultural pressures that place extreme value on thinness, physical appearance, and obtaining the “perfect body,” as well as media messages that encourage dieting as a means for achieving beauty.
GENETIC FACTORS are still being researched, but studies indicate a positive correlation between eating disorders and imbalances in the brain’s chemicals that control hunger, appetite, and digestion.
SPIRITUAL FACTORS (which come in myriad forms and may or may not be connected to organized religious practice) are those connected to life’s meaning and purpose. For clients who already have or create a sense of connection to spirituality, these resources may provide great support in recovery. However, for others, these significant quests are often temporarily lost. While in the grip of an eating disorder, a particularly difficult situation may occur where spiritual disciplines, rules or beliefs may have temporarily become distorted and serve to perpetuate attacks on the self.
- What physical symptoms and problems are associated with eating disorders?
- Amenorrhea (loss of menstrual period)
- Hypothermia—body’s inability to maintain heat due to extreme weight loss
- Lanugo—growth of fine hair on body to help maintain body temperature
- Loss of hair and nail quality
- Skin rash and dry skin
- Dental caries and gum disease
- Swollen salivary glands
- Body dehydration from laxative use and vomiting
- Loss of bowel control due to laxative abuse; possible ruptured colon
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Inflamed or ruptured esophagus (result from vomiting)
- Increased use of alcohol and drugs
- Heart problems—bradycardia and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
- Fertility problems
What are the warning signs?
- A significant decrease or increase in weight unrelated to a medical condition
- An extreme preoccupation with weight and body image (e.g., weighing self often or checking body in the mirror)
- Development of abnormal eating habits such as severe dieting, calorie counting, preference for strange foods, withdrawn or ritualized behavior at mealtimes, secretive bingeing, or skipping meals
- Compulsive or excessive exercising
- Self-induced vomiting, fasting or laxative, diet pill, or diuretic abuse
- Feelings of depression, irritability, and isolation
Who is affected?
Eating disorders do not discriminate. Approximately 5-10 million girls and women and 1 million boys and men in the United States struggle with eating disorders. In other words, 10% of eating disorder sufferers in the U.S. are male and 90% are female.
How do I confront a loved one who has an eating disorder?
First and foremost, have a plan. Confrontations are especially difficult when the secret of an eating disorder is recognized and exposed. Learn as much as you can about eating disorders before a confrontation by reading books, and articles. Speak with concern in a loving way; do not diagnose or preach. Be honest about what you believe is happening, and mention actual behaviors that you observe, as opposed to using labeling or diagnosing. Listen carefully to the response; be prepared that the eating disorder sufferer may react with denial and anger. Suggest that she talk with a mental health profession that understands eating disorders. Have names of therapists, doctors, or treatment centers handy to give her so that she can call to get help. Avoid simple solutions, such as, “Just start eating.” If it were that simple, this would not be a disorder.
Emphasize that professional help is absolutely necessary. It is just to hard too work out this problem alone. Do not wait until your friend or family member’s life is in danger. Eating disorders have a more favorable recovery rate if caught early.
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