Sure, you’ve jumped on the bandwagon for the latest diet trend, lost and regained a few pounds in the process, or maybe gone a little overboard at the buffet once in a while, but does that mean you have an eating disorder?
If your relationship with food reaches extreme levels, you could have an eating disorder. It’s estimated that 10 million women and around 1 million men face this struggle. According to Suzanne Mazzeo, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, many sufferers never seek treatment, so these numbers could be even higher.
Eating disorders are considered serious diseases. The three main types are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that among psychiatric illnesses, anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate. Here are some facts about these disorders you should know:
People who suffer from anorexia have the impression they are overweight when in reality they are thin. As they constantly attempt to lose weight, they often consume less than 1000 calories every day, vomit, take laxatives and diuretics, use enemas, and practice extreme exercise routines.
A conservative estimate of American women who suffer from anorexia nervosa is around 1 percent. Though anorexia also affects the elderly, men, and even children, adolescent girls and young women are the most common victims of the disease.
Common traits of those with anorexia nervosa are:
- Have a distorted body image
- Have a powerful fear of gaining weight
- Deny having an illness
- Keep themselves at 15 percent less than their ideal weight
- Women often quit menstruating for months at a time
Strange rituals when eating is also signs of an anorexic. They often refuse to eat in front of others, will cut their food into tiny pieces, and they may prepare large meals for others, but eat none of it themselves.
Some signs of the disease are visible while others remain hidden. An anorexic may have a lower body temperature, dry, yellowed skin, brittle bones, brittle nails, and fine hair on their body. One of the biggest dangers of anorexia is lowered blood pressure and heart rates. These effects can lead to an irregular heart rate and heart failure. The starvation-like diet can also have devastating effects on the kidneys and brain. Anorexics sometimes starve to death.
Bulimia nervosa is marked by purging after food consumption. A bulimic will often binge and then expunge the calories by vomiting, inducing diarrhea through the use of laxatives, fasting, or exercising to excess. For the bulimic, binging goes beyond overeating – they don’t stop when they’re full and have little to no control over how much they consume.
Most often seen in women, bulimic tendencies usually begin in adolescence and early adulthood, just like anorexia. It is estimated that between 1.5-3 percent of women suffer from bulimia, and experts say bulimics usually carry a normal body weight, sometimes a little more. Unfortunately, research shows many anorexics go on to become bulimic.
Common traits of those with bulimia nervosa are:
- Feeling they have no control over their binges
- Will binge at least twice a week for as long as three months
- Usually eat quickly and in secret
- Have constant thoughts of eating and their weight
- Have strong feelings of guilt after binging, and will likely purge, exercise to the extreme, and restrict food intake
- Binge to the point of discomfort, until there is no more food, or until interrupted
Some of the problems constant binging and purging can cause are dehydration, severe imbalance of electrolytes (minerals in the blood and bodily fluids), as well as heart problems. Sudden death is also a danger with bulimia.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder, sometimes called compulsive overeating, emotional eating, or food addiction, is typified by a lack of control when eating. Those with the disorder frequently consume large quantities of food, but will not purge, exercise, or fast afterward.
According to Dr. Mazzeo, “It’s not just overeating. Binge eating is what we call ‘loss of control eating.’ You feel like you can’t stop, even if you want to.”
Affecting about 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men, binge eating is the most common eating disorder and most frequently begins in the early 20s.
Common traits of those with binge eating disorder:
- Will binge in secret
- Binge during a lowered mood
- Binge at least twice a week for a period of at least six months
- Are overweight or obese
- Feel uncomfortably full after binging
- Have feelings of guilt, depression, and distress after binging
Binge eating often leads to weight gain, so those suffering from this disorder are more likely to face type 2 diabetes as well as other nutritional difficulties, and many have to deal with sleep problems and lowered quality of life.
Causes of Eating Disorders
While psychologists can’t pinpoint the exact cause of eating disorders, evidence suggests a strong genetic link, according to Dr. Mazzeo. “Identical twins are more likely to be consistent on whether they have an eating disorder.” A person related to an anorexic is roughly 10 more likely to experience an eating disorder than a non-relative.
The risk, however, is not only genetic. Environmental factors can also influence and trigger behaviors. Mazzeo states that things like abuse, stress, and even a media filled with ultra-thin supermodels can push people toward eating disorders. Some are pressured to be thin by their careers – actors, models, dancers, TV personalities, and even athletes. For these people, the risks are higher.
People who suffer from anxiety and depression also face a higher risk when it comes to eating disorders. Other impulsive behaviors, like drug and alcohol abuse, are not uncommon in bulimics, and they may struggle with other self-destructive tendencies.
It is very possible for a person to struggle with all three disorders during their lifetime, sometimes moving straight from one to the next, Mazzeo says. Fortunately, these disorders can be successfully treated with psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy. Group therapy can also be beneficial. Sometimes medications can help the condition.
Studies show that around 50 percent of anorexics can make a full recovery, and around 40 percent of bulimics who seek treatment find success ending the disorder. Binge eaters are slightly more successful with treatment, with nearly 60 percent able to adopt normal eating habits.
If you suspect you have an unhealthy relationship with food, get medical assistance to help you find a healthy solution.