Our society praises the super thin and often unattainable figures in magazines and on television. While almost everyone worries about their figures or weight at some point in their life, with young girls possibly being the most affected, it is when these worries get to an extreme level, causing abnormal eating habits that are unhealthy and even life-threatening at times, that a problem develops. When this happens, the issue can progress into an eating disorder, which is considered a mental illness.
The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-V lists three main types of eating disorders: bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. It also lists a fourth category for all symptoms that don’t fall into one of those three categories called an “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS.
Research varies on exactly how many people in America suffer from eating disorders. The disorders can be hard to pinpoint, and a large percentage of those afflicted go untreated. On top of that, the American Journal of Psychiatry published that those suffering from eating disorders also suffer from depression about half of the time. Co-occurring disorders like this can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult. The South Carolina Department of Health estimates that around 8 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder while the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders speculate that these numbers may be closer to 24 million.
All sources point to more women than men having an eating disorder, although men are indeed affected as well. Eating disorders span culture, age, and gender lines. Out of all mental health disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate and are not to be taken lightly, as they can seriously affect both physical and mental health.
It may be difficult to pinpoint someone suffering from bulimia nervosa as they may be at a normal, healthy weight or even overweight. These individuals also usually act in secret due to intense guilt or shame. Someone suffering from bulimia nervosa has the uncontrollable urge to eat large amounts of food and then purge. They will often consume vast quantities of food and then compensate with behaviors like self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives or diuretics, excessive exercise, or fasting.
Their self-esteem is often tied directly to their body image, which is often poor. They may fear gaining weight and use extreme methods to attempt to lose weight. Someone suffering from bulimia may engage in the binge eating and purging cycle several times a day or several times a week. Negative feelings and tension may be relieved by the purging only to crop up again, causing uncontrollable episodes of binge eating.
Risk factors and side effects of bulimia include:
- Worn tooth enamel, discolored teeth, and other tooth problems due to the constant presence of stomach acid
- Chronically sore and inflamed esophagus and throat
- Cuts and calluses on fingers and hands from using them to purge
- Severe dehydration
- Gastrointestinal problems like acid reflux disorder
- Electrolyte imbalance which can lead to heart failure
- Swollen salivary glands in the jaw and neck
- Heart attack
- Kidney failure
Bulimia nervosa often co-occurs with many other mental health disorders and illnesses, including substance abuse disorder and depression. It can quickly become life-threatening; if you suspect you are, or a loved one is, suffering from bulimia nervosa, you should seek help immediately.
People suffering from anorexia nervosa typically have a distorted body image and often see themselves as overweight no matter how thin they actually are. Diet, portion control, food, weight control, and eating being primary obsessions. Those suffering are unable to keep their weight within 15 percent of what is considered an ideal body weight, or IBW, for their frames. Other symptoms include:
- Emaciation or a body weight that is too low
- Extreme fear of weight gain
- Denial of the seriousness of their weight and disorder
- Inability to maintain a healthy weight
- Restricted diet, refusal to eat in front of others, or severe portion control
- Lack of menstruation in girls and women
Anorexia nervosa is a serious and potentially fatal mental illness in which those suffering may actually starve themselves to death and experience rapid and unhealthy weight loss. Health risks can include low blood pressure, anemia, damage to the heart, lethargy, organ failure, brain damage, infertility, severe constipation, and even death. Unhealthy weight management can lead to a failure of major organs, including your brain, which can ultimately change the way a person thinks and acts.
As many as 20 percent of those suffering from anorexia will die before their time due to complications from the disorder. If you suspect that you or a loved one may be suffering from anorexia nervosa, you should seek professional medical help immediately. The American Psychological Association reported that those suffering from anorexia have a mortality rate 18 times greater than their peers without eating disorders.
Binge Eating Disorder
A loss of control over eating, including eating when not hungry or out of guilt or shame without any attempt to purge, may indicate a binge eating disorder. Those suffering from binge eating disorder are often obese or overweight and may suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, gall bladder disease, or musculoskeletal problems as a result. People suffering from binge eating disorder may also suffer from depression and intense distress over their lack of control over their eating patterns.
Other Types of Eating Disorders
The fourth category in the DSM-V is called “eating disorder not specified,” commonly known as EDNOS. This category covers those with issues related to eating who don’t meet the criteria for any of the other three major eating disorders. Included in this category are:
- Purging disorder
- Night eating syndrome
- Rumination disorder
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
EDNOS also includes versions of the main three eating disorders that present with fewer or slightly different symptoms. As a result, they don’t meet the criteria for bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder, but they still cause impairment and distress in everyday life.
What Causes an Eating Disorder?
Like many other mental health disorders, most scientists agree that eating disorders are caused by a combination of environmental, biochemistry, genetics, and social factors. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that people are 10 times more likely to develop an eating disorder if their close relative had anorexia nervosa, indicating a strong genetic link.
Certain traits or behaviors may be precursors for eating disorders as well. For example, stressful events and a dysfunctional hormonal response to them may indicate a predisposition for developing an eating disorder. Social circumstances, including sports, modeling, or other venues focusing on body image and weight control, may play a role as well.
Additional mental health disorders and substance abuse tend to go hand in hand with eating disorders, and it is unclear if one causes the other or if they just exacerbate each other.
Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder
Getting help and intervening early in the case of any eating disorder can produce positive results. Knowing what to watch for can be key to potentially saving a life. Some of the warning signs of an eating disorder include:
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Obsession with weight loss, dieting, and weight management
- Frequent trips to the bathroom after eating
- Anxiety about being overweight
- Laxative and diuretic packaging in the trash
- Excuses to avoid mealtimes or denial of hunger
- Excessive exercise
- Consuming large amounts of food rapidly and frequently
- Evidence of purging
Eating disorders often present themselves in adolescence so it’s wise to keep an eye out for these signs during that time. While they are more prevalent in females, males should not be overlooked as they too can suffer from eating disorders.
Medical treatment for an eating disorder may be necessary if severe malnutrition is present. Progressive treatment and therapy, including nutrition counseling and assistance in ceasing unhealthy behaviors like excessive exercise, purging and binging, are the building blocks to recovery. Dialectical behavior therapy is a form of psychotherapy often used to help teach coping skills, while cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in helping to change unhealthy behavior patterns and thoughts. Integrated treatment models are often used for co-occurring disorders and relapse prevention.
The Recovery Village offers evidence-based treatment models, including a partial hospitalization option, residential treatment option, and intensive outpatient treatment option, as well as 24-hour medical detox care. Call today for more information on how you can get on the road to healthy living.