There are several common eating disorders that affect millions of people. Here are their symptoms, and how to know if you have one.
Many people view eating disorders as fads, lifestyle choices, or phases, and are even quick to judge those who are suffering from these disorders. This leads to those suffering from these disorders to become embarrassed about their condition, which makes them hesitant to seek help for their condition. However, eating disorders are serious psychological issues, and they can have life-threatening consequences.
According to studies, there are 20 million men and women in the USA alone that are suffering from eating disorders, and they can feel the negative consequences on their health, their mental status, and their personal and professional relationships. In fact, the problem has gotten so severe that eating disorders are now officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
What are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are disturbed or abnormal eating habits. They are marked with an unhealthy obsession with food and/or body shape. Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, but they are most common in young women.
Those suffering from eating disorders can have a wide variety of different symptoms. Most of these symptoms include a difficult and unhealthy relationship with food, as well as an unhealthy relationship with exercise. These eating disorders are also associated with negative body image issues.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
There are countless studies that try to understand the root of eating disorders, and there are as many theories as there are types of eating disorders. Health experts and dieticians believe that there is no one cause of eating disorders and that they are usually caused by a variety of different factors.
One possible cause that has been identified is genetics. According to studies done on twins, there is evidence to suggest that a person’s susceptibility to having an eating disorder can be hereditary. For example, if one twin develops an eating disorder, the other twin has a 50% chance of developing one as well. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that both twins will suffer from the same eating disorder.
Another commonly studied cause for an eating disorder is a person’s personality. It has been found that people who have personality traits such as perfectionism and neuroticism are linked to higher risks of developing an eating disorder. These personality traits can trigger a person’s need to feel accepted by their peers, or perhaps conform to a certain idea of physical beauty.
The third common cause (which is often connected to a person’s personality) is their social and cultural surroundings. In the West, there is a cultural preference for thinness, and from a young age, many people are exposed to this kind of mindset from both traditional and social media. Interestingly, the rate of eating disorders lessens dramatically in cultures that don’t have the same Western ideas on physical beauty.
Most recently, studies have shown that brain structure and hormone levels in the body might also play a role in developing eating disorders. People who have serotonin and dopamine imbalances have also shown a higher risk of developing eating disorders. However, there must be many more studies that have to be done in order to find out what factors actually contribute to a person developing an eating disorder.
Here below are some of the most common eating disorders, and their symptoms.
Anorexia nervosa is the most common and well-documented eating disorder. It generally affects more women compared to men, and it usually develops during adolescence, although it can also be found in the older population. Those suffering from this condition view themselves as overweight, although they are already dangerously underweight in reality. They will obsessively monitor their weight, restrict their diet and calorie intake, and avoid eating certain types of food.
Here are the common symptoms of anorexia nervosa:
- Being significantly underweight compared to people of similar age, gender, and height
- Restricted diet
- Intense and irrational fear of gaining weight
- Unhealthy pursuit of weight loss methods
- Distorted body image (views self as overweight even though physically dangerously underweight)
- Obsessive-compulsive behavior towards food and weight loss
- Difficulty eating in public or with other people
There are two officially-recognized subtypes of anorexia nervosa: the binge-eating type or the restrictive type. Those who are suffering from the binge-eating type might eat very large or very little amounts of food, then would purge the calories by taking laxatives, exercising excessively, or vomiting. Those who suffer from the restrictive type will take very little calories and hope to lose weight through fasting or extreme dieting.
Anorexia is damaging to the body, and over time, those who suffer from it will experience brittleness in their bones, thinning of their hair, and extreme, unhealthy weight loss. They may also experience heart and immune system problems, which can lead to organ failure or even death.
After anorexia nervosa, the next most-common eating disorder is bulimia nervosa. Just like with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa usually starts during adolescence and is more common in women compared to men. People with bulimia nervosa will eat large amounts of food in a short time, usually to the point of becoming painfully full. They normally feel that they cannot stop eating until they eat as much as possible. Once they are full, they then compensate by purging the food through vomiting, both to restrict their calorie intake and to alleviate the pain. While bulimia nervosa has some similarities with the binge-eating subtype of anorexia nervosa, those who are suffering from bulimia generally maintain their weight, instead of becoming underweight.
Here are the common symptoms of bulimia nervosa:
- Recurrent binge eating episodes
- No control during these episodes
- Fear of gaining weight, hence the regular purging
Since people who have bulimia nervosa will always purge through vomiting, it’s common for them to experience side effects such as sore throat, worn tooth enamel, tooth decay, and halitosis, due to the regular vomiting of stomach acid. They are also at risk for hormonal imbalances and severe dehydration. Over time, long-term bulimia nervosa can cause severe imbalances in the body’s electrolyte levels, which can cause a heart attack or a stroke.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating is a more recent eating disorder and has only been recognized relatively later compared to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. While it does usually begin in early childhood or adolescence, binge eating has affected both men and women equally. Those who suffer from this disorder have similar symptoms with binge-eating anorexia or bulimia in that they feel compelled to eat abnormally large amounts of food in a short amount of time, and they feel a lack of control during these periods. However, the main difference is that people who suffer from binge eating disorder do not purge through vomiting or exercise, and they do not restrict their calorie intake.
The common symptoms of binge eating disorder include:
- Eating large amounts of food quickly
- No control during these eating episodes
- Feeling disgusted, distress, or anger towards themselves due to their binge eating
- No purging behavior
Since they do not restrict their calories or purge their food, people who have binge eating disorder tend to be overweight or even obese. This means that they are at risk for diseases related to excessive weight, such as heart disease, liver disease, or type 2 diabetes.
Pica is a relatively new disorder that’s only recently been recognized by the DSM. People who suffer from pica feel the need to eat non-food items. Some of the documented cases of pica have people eating items such as soil, chalk, soap, paper, and hair, but there are many other items that people have eaten. Pica can occur in both young people and adults, although it’s more commonly observed in children and people who have mental issues.
The common symptoms of pica include:
- Craving for non-food substances
- Inability to stop eating non-food substances
- Inability to recognize non-food items as inedible
People who suffer from pica are at risk for poisoning, stomach injuries, and nutrition deficiencies. In the more extreme cases, pica can even be lethal.
Restrictive Food Eating Disorder
Restrictive food eating disorder is also known as avoidant food eating disorder (AFRID). In the past, it was known as “feeding disorder of infancy or early childhood”, and it was most commonly seen in children under seven years old. While it’s seen in children, it can persist into adulthood, and it’s common in both men and women. Those who are suffering from AFRID experience a lack of interest in eating due to a distaste for certain smells, textures, or tastes. It’s different from being a “picky” eater since this distaste can manifest in physical ways such as retching, feeling nauseous, or even vomiting when faced with certain stimuli.
The common symptoms of AFRID include:
- Avoidance of certain food items
- Being underweight or nutrition deficient
- Poor development for age, weight, and height
People who suffer from AFRID might find it difficult to be diagnosed, since many of those around them might call them as picky or choosy eater, making them feel ashamed or embarrassed about their condition.
What to Do If You have an Eating Disorder
It’s important to be educated about the eating disorders mentioned above, as well as other less-common eating disorders. They are serious mental conditions, and they can have adverse effects on a person’s health and wellbeing. If you or someone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder, it’s critical that you seek help immediately from a licensed healthcare practitioner who is equipped in dealing with and treating eating disorders. Find someone you trust and talk to them, and ask for their help in finding a healthcare professional.
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