In a society with intense pressures around diet, health, exercise, and physical appearance, eating disorders are a problem for many.
Eating disorders represent a wide range of different illnesses, and symptoms can vary based on the case and person. Many people start to be at risk for eating disorders when they are teenagers or young adults, but people can develop these disorders at any age.
Seeing the effects of an eating disorder on yourself or a loved one can be hard. Eating disorder symptoms often include difficult behaviors to control, which are both mentally and physically harmful. The negative stigma around eating disorders may also make it harder for a person to seek help. If you believe someone you know may be experiencing an eating disorder, it’s a good idea to keep an open mind, do your research, and be supportive in any way you can.
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is a mental illness characterized by harmful behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes towards food, eating, body weight, or body shape. There is no singular way to define eating disorders, as they are complex and diverse mental illnesses. They can also include a spectrum of severity and can be fatal in the most extreme cases.
Eating disorders can also occur in relation to other mental or physical illnesses. They may be triggered or intensified by other mental disorders, physical conditions, and other body changes. In addition, disordered behavior and thought patterns caused by eating disorders can cause a person to develop other mental or physical illnesses. People may also experience multiple illnesses simultaneously, which may not necessarily be linked to one another.
Common Eating Disorders
Although each person’s eating disorder will look different, there are a few common categories that many eating disorders fall into. These categories can be helpful in recognizing the symptoms of an eating disorder, understanding potential causes and risk factors, and seeking treatment.
One of the most commonly known eating disorders is anorexia nervosa. This disorder is characterized by restrictive eating, a fixation on weight, and distorted body image. People experiencing anorexia will typically avoid food, eat very small quantities of food, or otherwise severely restrict their food intake. People with this disorder are also likely to weigh themselves often and fixate on the number they see on the scale. Many people with anorexia also have a severely distorted body image. They may see themselves as being overweight even when they are dangerously underweight.
Anorexia often has significant physical symptoms due to the lack of nutrition that the body needs to sustain itself. These can include many issues such as hair loss, osteoporosis, low blood pressure, and even brain damage. Especially in the long term, anorexia can be fatal. People with this disorder can be at risk of death by suicide or from the medical complications of starvation.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide and needs immediate help, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
For crises specifically related to eating disorders, you can also call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237 (M-Th: 9 AM-9 PM EST, Fri 9 AM – 5 PM EST).
Bulimia nervosa is another commonly known eating disorder. This condition is generally characterized by recurring episodes of eating unusually and uncontrollably large amounts of food, followed by a behavior meant to compensate for overeating. This may be forced vomiting but can also include the use of laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise. Contrary to popular belief, bulimia is not always associated with extreme weight loss. People with bulimia can have any weight or body type.
Like many other eating disorders, mental symptoms of bulimia can include a feeling of inability to control one’s behavior and a fixation on eating, food, and weight. Due to the use of unusual methods to compensate for overeating, bulimia can also include many intense physical symptoms. These can include chronically sore throat, intestinal distress, severe dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance. The symptoms of bulimia can have potentially severe health impacts, including an increased risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Binge Eating Disorder
While Binge Eating Disorder is not as commonly known as anorexia or bulimia, it is actually the most common eating disorder in the U.S. This condition is characterized by recurring binge episodes or specific periods of time in which people lose control over their eating or eat unusually large amounts of food. This is similar to bulimia nervosa. A key difference is a lack of purging or other behaviors to compensate for binge episodes.
Binge Eating disorder is often associated with shame around eating. People with this disorder may often eat alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment and often feel ashamed or guilty about eating. This disorder can also be related to dieting. Dieting behaviors may even put a person at risk for developing this disorder, as they can bring up feelings of guilt, shame, and restriction around eating.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (AFRID)
This is another lesser-known category of eating disorders. Like other eating disorders, AFRID is characterized by severely limiting the amount or type of food that a person eats. Unlike anorexia, however, this disorder is generally not associated with distorted body image or an extreme fear of gaining weight. Instead, the condition revolves more around controlling the amount or type of food intake.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder can often develop in childhood, earlier than most other eating disorders. It is different, however, from picky eating. People with AFRID severely restrict their food and do not eat enough to maintain essential body function. This disorder can often include symptoms such as a lack of appetite, dramatic weight loss, and gastrointestinal issues.
Other Eating Disorders
Many eating disorders do not fall into these common categories. There are many other eating disorders, such as orthorexia, rumination disorder, or compulsive exercise. However, many eating disorders are also not described by any defined label. These disorders are generally labeled as Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) and were previously categorized as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).
OFED/EDNOS is a catch-all category that comprises symptoms that may not fit standard definitions. Contrary to popular belief, these disorders are just as serious and can have severe medical complications. Historically, many people in eating disorder clinics have been diagnosed with OFED/EDNOS. People experiencing these disorders will likely have similar symptoms to those with other disorders. However, they may lack key symptoms for a particular definition.
Eating Disorder Symptoms and Signs
There are many eating disorder symptoms and signs, which may differ significantly based on the specific disorder a person is experiencing. However, some symptoms are common to many (though not all) eating disorders and can be helpful indicators to spot them. These can include:
- Fixation on weight, eating, or exercise. These symptoms may not all occur together, but they are common to many eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders.
- Difficulty eating with others. This can be due to various causes such as a desire to restrict food intake, restrictive eating patterns, or shame around eating or lack thereof.
- Withdrawal from social circles. Many people with eating disorders experience severe mental symptoms. These can include feeling out of control of their behavior, intense guilt and shame, and even symptoms of depression or anxiety. These can all cause people to withdraw from their social circles and become more isolated.
- Rigid rituals and routines around food. This can look different depending on the eating disorder. However, rigid and unusual behaviors and patterns around food are common signs of eating disorders.
- Physical symptoms. Depending on the eating disorder, these can be anything from hair loss to weight fluctuations or chronic sore throat. Physical symptoms may not be the first signs of an eating disorder but often signal that the condition is becoming more severe or persisting over the long term.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder, consult with a mental health professional. A professional will help determine what is going on and the next steps to treatment and recovery.
Not All Eating Disorders Look the Same
It is critical to remember that every eating disorder is different. Symptoms and experiences vary greatly based on the person and illness. Consider any stereotypes or preconceived notions you may have around eating disorders and what they look like, and keep an open mind when learning and supporting someone with an eating disorder.
Deconstructing Diet Culture
The prevalence of dieting and intense pressures around weight and body image can be significant risk factors for eating disorders. This set of pressures and social expectations around health, weight, and fitness is commonly referred to as diet culture. Once you start looking, it’s easy to spot diet culture everywhere. It appears in anything from ideas of a “beach body” to constant ads for diets and weight loss programs to stereotypes and discrimination based on weight.
Various aspects of diet culture, such as narrow and idealized body expectations, discrimination based on weight, or even diets themselves, can put people at risk of developing eating disorders. This culture often encourages people to engage in restrictive behaviors and focus intensely on food and exercise. In order to support people experiencing eating disorders, it’s essential to deconstruct diet culture at the societal level and redefine our ideas of beauty and health.
Facing Stigmas and Stereotypes
There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions when it comes to eating disorders. One revolves around the idea of what an eating disorder looks like. When we think of eating disorders, a stereotypical image of a thin young woman experiencing anorexia or bulimia may come to mind. While this may describe some people with eating disorders, it certainly does not describe all.
A person of any gender, ethnicity, weight, age or body type can develop an eating disorder. When thinking about eating disorders, it is vital to keep this in mind and recognize common misconceptions. One such misconception is the idea that men do not get eating disorders. Our society has a stigma in general around men’s mental health. However, the stigma can be especially severe for eating disorders, as these illnesses are often seen as being feminine. In reality, men can and do get eating disorders. Since an eating disorder is not something a person chooses or can control, it is not a reflection of their gender, strength, or character in any way.
Another common stigma is that people with eating disorders are always thin. This is not the case. In fact, the intense pressure that fat people experience around dieting and weight loss often puts them at risk of eating disorders. While an eating disorder may affect a person’s weight, it is essential to remember that weight, in general, is not an indicator of eating disorders.
In addition to these specific stereotypes, people experiencing eating disorders also struggle with our society’s stigma around mental disorders in general. Many people believe that a person is at fault for developing an eating disorder or that they can simply stop the destructive habits it causes if they want to. However, just like a physical illness, an eating disorder is not a choice. It is also not something a person can easily control. While it is possible to break the habits and patterns associated with an eating disorder, it is generally the result of intentional and long-term treatment.
How to Support Someone with an Eating Disorder
If someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder, you may be able to help and support them in several ways. One great way is by encouraging them to seek help. If they are open to it, you can even help them research possible treatment methods, such as therapy, inpatient treatment, and support groups.
Finally, avoid discussing subjects of weight or appearance. Even if these are meant to be encouraging (i.e., “You look great!” or “You look a lot healthier.”), directing the focus to weight and appearance can trigger a person recovering from an eating disorder to start negative thought patterns or spirals.
People experiencing eating disorders are not only facing the symptoms of their illness but also social pressures and stigma around it. One of the most helpful things you can do to support someone with an eating disorder is listening to them and keeping an open mind. Try to remain open to understanding their experience, even if it is something that you can’t imagine or don’t understand.