There is often a complicated relationship between our self-esteem, physical bodies, and food. Outside influences like critical parents, bullying peers, or cultural beauty and diet trends popularized on social media can deeply impact our sense of self-worth.According to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), an estimated 30 million Americans are living with some type of eating disorder, the most common ones being anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
An eating disorder is a pattern of binge eating, extreme dieting, self-starvation, purging behavior, or other dangerous attempts at controlling calorie intake. These patterns most commonly begin around the age of eighteen in both men and women. Eating disorders are classified as psychiatric illnesses and can cause serious and sometimes irreversible damage to a person’s heart, digestive system, mouth, teeth, and bones.
This article is intended to impart information only, not advice. If you believe that you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, it is best to see a healthcare provider immediately.
Only with a health expert will you be able to obtain a diagnosis and begin pursuing the recommended treatment. A well-balanced treatment plan will usually involve a mental health expert such as a therapist or counselor.
What is an eating disorder?
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa (commonly referred to as simply anorexia or bulimia) are two of the most common eating disorders in the United States. Besides these, there are other eating disorders like Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Other Specified Feeding And Eating Disorders (OSFED).
An obsession with body weight, body shape, appearance, and calorie intake are at the root of each eating disorder. This results in the development of some dangerous eating habits such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, excessive exercise, or a complete lack of interest in food.
Eating disorders begin with unstable mental health, including feelings of shame, self-loathing, guilt over a perceived physical imperfection, or failure to be a certain weight or shape. These feelings are often kept secret but tend to become so intense that action must be taken to achieve certain weight goals or make a desired change.
This is where the dangerous habits begin. Depending on the specific disorder, the person feeling these things may start eating less in public, working out more to burn off calories, monitoring every piece of food they consume, or bingeing on “forbidden” foods in secret (often only to vomit them up later).
It soon becomes impossible to keep this behavior secret, as things like dramatic weight loss, a visible decline in physical and mental health, a change in attitude, or even bad breath (from forced vomiting) become obvious.
Anorexia and bulimia are two of the most common eating disorders, affecting an estimated 1.5 percent of the American adult population. Eating disorders used to be ten times more common among girls and women, however, recent research shows that eating disorders are becoming increasingly more common among teen boys and adult men.
Although they are two distinct eating disorders, many symptoms overlap, and it is common for a person to develop one disorder and then move on to the other.
What is anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia is a form of self-starvation where the patient restricts their diet severely, often skipping meals and monitoring calories in every single meal and drink. They will also likely obsess over exercise, always trying to get thinner or become toned. Though they might hear from other people that they are already thin, possibly even drastically so, they cannot believe it or see it in the mirror.
Whilst both anorexia and bulimia are characterized by a preoccupation with being thin, those battling anorexia are often dangerously underweight, to begin with. Anorexia nervosa can be fatal.
Besides the high suicide rates associated with anorexia, there are high fatality rates usually associated with medical conditions associated with starvation. These include extreme dehydration, digestive complications, dangerously low blood pressure, brain damage, and in some cases multi-organ failure.
As with every eating disorder, there are physical symptoms of anorexia, emotional or psychological symptoms, and behavioral symptoms. The first thing to look out for in the physical symptoms is alarming thinness or drastic weight loss. An emaciated appearance, a yellowing in complexion, hair loss, and increased illnesses related to an impaired immune system are common.
Anxiety and depression are almost always part of anorexia, and so a person battling anorexia may be stressed, high-strung, constantly tense, or disinterested in life. Additionally, they might frequently skip meals, lie about their eating habits, and be irrationally angry when questioned about their well-being.
There are two sub-types of anorexia: restrictive and binge-purge. Both are exactly what they sound like. People with either type restrict their food intake, often dangerously. People battling with the binge-purge form of anorexia restrict their diets mostly, but may also end up eating large amounts of food over short periods, only to get rid of it using laxatives, diuretics, or vomiting.
Symptoms of bulimia nervosa.
Similar to anorexia, those dealing with bulimia nervosa also frequently feel out of control of their bodies, and use eating habits to try and regain some control. Where people with anorexia use strict limitations on their diets to gain control of their spiraling self-esteem, those with bulimia frequently eat large amounts of food in moments of heightened emotions.
To regain control after these binges, they “purge” the food they ate. That is to say, they expel it using vomiting, laxative use, or diuretics. The binge, purge cycle is usually followed by a period of intense exercise and focus, in their attempt to keep control.
Patients with anorexia are almost always underweight, whereas those battling bulimia might be underweight, a regular weight, or overweight. Their eating habits are almost always kept secret, to begin with, and even spouses, siblings, parents, or partners might not be aware of their inner turmoil. Outwardly, they may seem fixated on their appearance, although it’s not always noticed that they might be deeply struggling.
As with anorexia, there are two subtypes of bulimia which are purging and non-purging. The person experiencing the non-purging type of bulimia does not induce vomiting or use laxatives, but rather they will engage in excessive exercise, or use fasting to avoid weight gain. This behavior might not sound as serious as the other purging actions, but pushing the body to extremes while having severe nutrient deficiencies can result in disastrous physical ailments.
The effects and risks of bulimia can also be life-threatening. Physical symptoms include dehydration, mouth complications from vomiting, like receding gums and eroded tooth enamel, kidney damage, heart damage, and persistent fatigue. It is common to experience depression, anxiety, mood swings, and to become socially isolated when dealing with bulimia.
What causes anorexia or bulimia?
There has been a lot of medical and psychological research done on eating disorders. One study in 2011 found a genetic link in many cases of anorexia and bulimia, but this link was related to personality traits like perfectionism. Trauma, feelings of stress or depression, and other forms of ill mental health are behind almost every occurrence of an eating disorder.
When these tumultuous mental and emotional states are combined with societal pressures to look a certain way or to have a certain type of lifestyle, the results are often disastrous to physical health as well as mental health.
In the instances of men developing eating disorders, there is a lack of reported cases. However, studies show that since 2011, at least twice as many men now experience eating disorders.
In many of the reported cases, the motivation of many men to scale down on their weight or to alter their physical appearance is related to their profession. Sportsmen or men that are required to be a certain weight and size will frequently develop bulimia as they try to control their diet.
Finally, there is a correlation between neurodivergent people, or those with developmental challenges, and eating disorders. In the case of autism, for example, many patients refuse to eat certain foods based on them being a certain color or texture that they strongly dislike.
Though this may seem like a harmless quirk within their condition, there is a strong likelihood that they will develop some type of eating disorder because of it. Eating disorders cannot always be prevented, but they can be identified and successfully treated if confronted immediately. The best time to seek help is today.
Obtaining further help.
Eating disorders typically involve a lot more than harmful eating behaviors. A person’s mental health is often wrapped up in the obsessive and mostly negative thinking patterns that drive and steer eating disorders.
In addition to receiving important medical assistance to battle an eating disorder, it may be necessary to consult with a counselor or therapist to make lasting changes. We can connect you with a mental health professional and together with them you can focus on the mental health aspect of the treatment plan.
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