What is an eating disorder? Are there signs I should be on the lookout for? And what do I do if I’m suffering?
An eating disorder can come with many different faces. It doesn’t matter who you are, your age, your social status, sexual orientation, or gender; These disorders can thrive within anyone.
Traditionally, all eating disorders have been categorised by disordered eating habits or patterns. Some disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, can be accompanied by excessive levels of exercise and an unhealthy preoccupation with weight or shape. While other lessor known eating disorders, such as BED and Pica, involve things such as eating excessive amounts of food, or eating items not usually deemed edible.
These are just a few of the currently known eating disorders. There are multiple conditions beneath the eating disorder umbrella, and more continue to emerge!
Note; Remember that an eating disorder IS NOT solely about food. They often create deep roots covered in a variety of trauma and issues spanning over a varying period of time.
“An eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice, a diet gone wrong, or a cry for attention. They can take many different forms and interfere with a person’s day-to-day life.” Eating disorders, Victoria.
What are the most common Eating Disorders?
There are various types of eating disorders ranging from Anorexia Nervosa right through to the lesser-known Pica. However, to keep things reasonably short, we’re only going to discuss the most commonly known and diagnosed eating disorders.
Those with anorexia nervosa (AN) are often diagnosed based on low body weight caused by severe food restrictions. They may lose weight by severely restricting their calorie intake, overexercising and, on occasions, may take part in purging behaviours (i.e self-induced vomiting or laxative misuse).
Having lived with the disorder for decades, I know firsthand the severe effects anorexia nervosa can have on both the body and the mind. Quite often, the sufferer is stuck in a loop wherein anorexia is very much in control. It causes them to become blinded to the way things really are. For example, they may be unable to see themselves as others do, instead suffering from body dysmorphia wherein body image is severely skewed.
With this eating disorder, there comes a deep fear of weight gain. To combat this, individuals often strive to continue to lose weight despite the life-threatening impacts.
Those with bulimia are caught within a constant cycle of eating large quantities of food (binging) and then compensating for that behaviour. There are many ways in which those with this eating disorder can choose to ‘purge‘ including; self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic use, fasting for an extended period of time or participating in over-exercise.
Note; There are obvious cross-overs between this eating disorder and that of Anorexia Nervosa that we’ll discuss in a later part of the series.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
Also known as BED or Emotional Eating, this eating disorder is often associated with higher body weight. It involves recurrent episodes of eating a large quantity of food, loss of control of eating, a sense of shame, distress, and guilt after a binge, and the absence of compensating behaviors. This sets it apart from Bulimia wherein the person then compensates using a variety of methods (see above).
Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder.
Standing for Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder and previously known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). This is considered a ‘catch-all‘ diagnosis for sufferers who clearly have an issue with food and weight, but don’t fall neatly into any other frame.
At several points in my life, I’ve fallen into this category instead of Anorexia Nervosa. This was mainly due to my body weight being within a healthy range. Sadly, BMI and body weight is still used as the main factor in diagnosing anorexia nervosa, which often places barriers in regard to correct and timely treatment.
Note: You can read more about OSFED (and the other disorders) on the Beat website.
What might you be experiencing?
There are a variety of symptoms you might be experiencing some of which are mental, while others are physical. Some symptoms can be seen across all types of eating disorders, while others are specific.
Generalised Eating Disorder symptoms.
- Fatigue and weakness.
- Feeling Cold. Experiencing cold hands and feet in particular.
- Chest pains.
- Bowel issues.
- Lack of menstrual cycle (in women of childbearing age) in both those of low and high body weight.
- Dry hair and skin.
- Hair loss.
- Lanugo (growth of fine body hair in a bid to keep sufferer warm. Often found in those with Anorexia Nervosa).
- Low body weight or high body weight/obesity in the case of BED.
- Brain shrinkage.
- Impaired body functions.
- Concentration and memory issues.
- Heightened levels of depression and anxiety.
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Note: If you want to know more about symptoms specific to each disorder, please visit Beat for a full range of information.
How do I know if I have an Eating Disorder & what can I do?
An easy way to notice an issue within yourself is to ask a set of questions to which you have to be 100% honest.
- Am I constantly obsessing over food, shape, and weight?
- Has it consumed me to the point where I am unable to function?
- Have I experienced any significant changes in my weight lately due to over/undereating?
- Do I have issues with how I see myself? I.e do I see myself as too ‘fat‘, despite being considered by others as much too small?
- Do I find myself frequently avoiding food, going for long periods without food, eating too much, and then either purging or feeling extreme shame/guilt?
If you’ve answered yes to one or more above there’s a chance you have an eating disorder. However, please don’t take my word for it. It’s always best to seek a formal diagnosis from a medical professional.
What can you do?
When it comes to asking for help with a potential eating disorder it can be rather scary. Luckily there are a number of ways you can better prepare yourself to do the seemingly impossible.
Talk to a trusted family member or friend.
This may seem very daunting. Some people find it easier to talk to those closest to them rather than a stranger, sadly, I am not one of those people. I know how difficult it can be to seem vulnerable to those you love dearest. But your friends and family hold a vital part in helping you get help, and they’ll also play a big role in your recovery.
It should be noted that not all families/friends are going to be supportive. Be aware and prepared for this before going into the situation.
Contact your GP.
When you see your GP be very clear about your concerns. If you’ve confided in a friend or family member it might make you feel more comfortable to bring them along with you for moral support.
Your GP should (hopefully) refer you on for a mental health/eating disorder assessment. However, I’m only speaking in terms of Anorexia Nervosa. Other eating disorders may make it difficult to access help due to the nature of our health service. DO NOT be discouraged. There’s help out there, and if you find your GP redundant you can always contact BEAT for more information.
Contact BEAT or a local charity.
BEAT is the national eating disorder charity in the UK. They have a library of information for both sufferers and their loved ones. If you’re having problems accessing help through other means, you can always call them to receive free, confidential advice on where to go next.
Note: BEAT is a UK-based charity. Please use the charity equivalent to your country for the best result.