WHAT ARE EATING DISORDERS?
Eating disorders involve problems with food, weight, body image and eating. They are more than just dieting or worrying about food, but are serious mental illnesses with significant physical and medical complications. Eating disorders interfere with normal activities and quality of life. Regardless of weight, eating disorders have a high mortality rate and can occur at any age, to both men and women of any cultural background. The four main eating disorders are classified as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder (OSFED). Anorexia nervosa is characterized by low body weight, reduced intake and a distorted body image. Bulimia nervosa involves binge eating and compensatory behaviours to compensate for the binge. Binge eating disorder involves bingeing or consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time. When unhealthy behaviours around food, weight and shape do not fall into the above categories they are classified as OSFED.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WARNING SIGNS FOR EATING DISORDERS?
There are a number of symptoms related to the various types of eating disorders. Below is a list of common symptoms, however, it is important to note that an individual may not experience or display all, or any, of these symptoms.
Physical warning signs:
- Weight changes
- Loss of menstrual periods in women
- Feeling tired with low energy
- Sleep problems
- Bad breath
- Teeth damage from frequent vomiting
- Feeling cold, including cold hands
Psychological warning signs:
- Frequent thoughts or preoccupation with food and body weight or shape
- Feeling anxious or irritable around food
- Distorted body image
- Seeing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or as a source of comfort
- Low mood
- Withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities
Behavioural warning signs:
- Dieting behaviours (e.g. avoiding carbohydrates) or skipping meals
- Avoiding meals with others
- Food missing from the cupboard
- Eating large amounts of food at once
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Excessive or secretive exercise
- Rituals around food or food preparation (e.g. eating slowly, only eating from the same bowl, cooking for others but refusing to eat with others)
- Changes in food preferences
- Secretive behaviour around food
WHAT CAUSES EATING DISORDERS?
Research into the cause of eating disorders continues, however, it is thought that there is no one single cause of an eating disorder. There are a number of risk factors or vulnerabilities that make a person more likely to develop an eating disorder. These include a genetic predisposition (e.g. a biological relative with an eating disorder), psychological factors (e.g. low self-esteem, poor body image, perfectionistic personality), and socio-cultural influences (e.g. pressure to achieve, being bullied).
WHO IS MOST SUSCEPTIBLE TO EATING DISORDERS?
Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, however research suggests that young people are particularly at risk of developing an eating disorder. An eating disorder is not just a female issue; about 25% of people with an eating disorder are male. Eating disorders commonly co-occur with other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and substance use disorders.
HOW DO I PREVENT EATING DISORDERS?
Research has identified a number of factors which may be protective or reduce the likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Individual factors such as a positive body image, high self-esteem, being assertive with good problem solving skills, good social skills and emotional well-being can be protective, as well as family factors such as eating regular meals together and not focusing on weight or shape. In addition, socio-cultural factors such as an involvement in team sports, and a peer or social group that does not focus on weight or appearance are also protective factors.
HOW COMMON ARE EATING DISORDERS?
Eating disorders affect about 9% of the population, including males and females.
HOW CAN EATING DISORDERS BE TREATED?
It is important to seek treatment early as research shows that the sooner treatment is started, the shorter the recovery process. There are a number of effective psychological treatments for eating disorders and the treatment chosen will depend on the needs of the individual including age, type and severity of the eating disorder, family situation, current physical health and any comorbid mental health issues. Psychological treatment will also involve regular contact with a medical practitioner such as a GP or Pediatrician.