Eating disorders are potentially life threatening conditions that compromise an individual’s physical and emotional well being. Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder are the three most common eating disorders.
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by self-starvation and extreme weight loss. Bulimia Nervosa involves episodes of binge eating (out of control eating beyond the point of feeling full) followed by purging through such means as self-induced vomiting or use of laxatives. A person with Binge Eating Disorder engages in binge-eating, but typically does not compensate with purging behaviors.
All three conditions have serious physical consequences including potentially permanent damage to the heart, bones, and digestive system. Ultimately, the unhealthy eating behaviors linked to these disorders can be fatal.
Each of these disorders involves an unhealthy relationship with food and discomfort or dissatisfaction with one’s natural body shape and size. However, it is important to understand that eating disorders are not really about food or weight; the symptoms of these disorders mask underlying struggles with self-esteem, identity, and emotional wellbeing.
People with eating disorders often feel isolated, overwhelmed, and out of control. Developing extreme patterns of eating, fasting, and exercising is one way they try to exert control over their lives. Unfortunately, this sense of control is false, as these behaviors actually make it more difficult for one to regain a healthy lifestyle.
Although eating disorders are most common among girls and young women, they can affect both males and females of every racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and age group.
Because of the serious physical and emotional effects of eating disorders and their tendency to spin out of control, it is important to seek professional help immediately if you think that you or someone you care about is suffering from an eating disorder.
What causes eating disorders?
Some of the internal factors that can contribute to eating disorders are low self-esteem, feeling out of control in life, depression, anxiety, anger, or loneliness. In addition, there are a number of life experiences that can lead to eating disorders, including troubled relationships, difficulty expressing one’s emotions to others, and a history of being teased about one’s size or weight. These psychological and interpersonal factors interact with the social and cultural norms that make up our cultural context.
We live in a society that glorifies thinness and places pressure on people to strive for the “perfect body.” Advertisements and other media promote unrealistic body images and encourage us to buy products that will help us to achieve these visions of beauty. These cultural expectations can be harmful to everyone. For individuals already struggling with low-self esteem and experiencing a lack of control in their lives, the ambition to achieve an “ideal body” can become an obsession.
What can I do?
If you or someone you love may be suffering from an eating disorder, it is important to ask for help as soon as possible. If you are concerned about a loved one’s eating behavior or attitudes about his or her body, set aside time to talk in a safe space. Be supportive, expressing your specific concerns without blaming or demanding that they change their behavior. If your friend or family member disagrees with what you are saying but you are still concerned, remind them that you are available to talk whenever they want to. You can research eating disorders and share what you have learned with them.
There are many treatment possibilities, depending on the needs of the individual. In general, because the origins of these conditions are psychological struggles with self-esteem, identity, and emotional well being, individuals with eating disorders are treated with psychological counseling that addresses both the unhealthy eating behaviors and the underlying emotional issues. Psychological treatment should be paired with medical care and education about nutrition. Depending on the severity of the disorder, individuals may need to spend some time in an inpatient program. It is always better to start treatment as soon as possible.