Your eating behaviors will change throughout your entire life. Part of transitioning into adulthood involves learning how to be healthy without overdoing it. You also have to figure out how to love your body rather than be ashamed of it. For many people, this is no simple task.
When damaging eating behaviors and negative thoughts become persistent, they can turn into eating disorders. Up to 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. These disorders are characterized by a lack of control over eating habits, which can include eating very small or very large amounts, and a hyper focus on your weight and body shape.
Eating Disorder Research
Sadly the funding dedicated to research of eating disorders is a small fraction of that dedicated to other conditions. This despite the prevalence of eating disorder cases continuing rise year after year for decades.
Now take a look at how much more prevalent eating disorders are versus those other conditions drawing 10 times as much research funding:
How can an eating disorder impact my life?
In addition to disrupting your day-to-day activities, an eating disorder can affect your mental and emotional health. You might find yourself feeling more anxious about the number of calories you consume or ashamed about your weight. You may start to isolate from friends and family who express concerns about your health, which can lead to depression.
The physical impact of an eating disorder can be significant. Over time, damaging eating behaviors can affect your digestion, your bones, your skin, teeth, and your heart’s functioning. Of any mental illness, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. Persons with anorexia are 18 times more likely to die that their peers, so getting treatment as early as possible when behaviors appears is essential.
Who is at risk for an eating disorder?
Eating disorders most often occur during adolescence and young adulthood, but children and older adults can also develop them. Though women more frequently experience symptoms, men are also at risk. With some men, however, there may be a hyper focus on gaining muscle size rather than losing weight.
Your genes, the environment, societal norms, and your psychological health also play a role. People with other behavioral health challenges such as depression, anxiety, or drug and alcohol use are also more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors. High stress situations and activities that encourage a stricter diet (such as sports, dancing, modeling) might also put you at higher risk.
What are the types of eating disorders?
Anorexia is a life-threatening disorder that can occur when people who appear underweight to everyone else see themselves as overweight. A person with anorexia will begin to obsess over the details of their food intake and carefully control their weight. Major symptoms might include the following:
- Unhealthy body weight
- Fear of gaining weight
- Restrictive eating habits
- Distorted perception of body shape
- Extreme efforts to control weight
- Lack of menstruation among females
Bulimia can occur when an individual frequently eats large amounts of food and then purges the food. Purging can occur through forced vomiting or the use of laxatives or diuretics, or instead of purging, the individual may compensate for the overeating by excessively exercising or fasting for an extended amount of time. The criteria for a diagnosis of Bulimia include:
- Episodes of binging and purging
- Feeling that you can’t control your overeating
- Restrictive eating that leads to binging and purging
- Preoccupation with your weight
- Feeling ashamed about binging and purging
- Keeping purging habits a secret
Binge eating becomes a disorder when a person loses control over their eating. But unlike bulimia nervosa, there is no purging or fasting that occurs afterwards. People with binge-eating disorder often struggle with their weight and feelings of shame or guilt about the behavior. Caught in a cycle, the emotions often reinforce the binging. Symptoms include:
- Lack of control overeating
- Feeling guilty or ashamed of overeating
- Lack of purging followed by binge eating
- Eating more food than you intended
- Hiding your overeating from others
Other Eating Disorders
There are several other less common eating disorders. Rumination disorder occurs when a person consistently regurgitates food after eating, and pica is a disorder where a person persistently ingests nonfood items. Both of these disorders are more common among people with intellectual disabilities and autism. To get more information about them, talk to your doctor.
How do I know if a friend or family member has an eating disorder?
Only a physician or mental health professional can give a diagnosis, but here are some signs you may observe if your loved one is struggling with eating habits.
- Eating in secret or leaving meals to go to the bathroom
- Expressing guilt about eating habits
- Constantly talking about weight or losing weight
- Being extremely focused on eating healthy
- Consistently skipping meals
- Exercising excessively
- Frequently checking the mirror or scale
- Using dietary supplements or laxatives
How will I know if I need treatment?
If you or your loved have any concerns about your eating behaviors, then you should always err on the side of caution and talk to your doctor. It may not feel serious to you, but stepping in at the right moment to ask for help can prevent the behaviors from escalating and becoming life threatening. However, there is always hope for change. Even if you’ve been struggling with your eating for years, it is never too late to be brave and seek treatment.
How do I get the best help?
Make an appointment with your primary care physician or a mental health professional as soon as possible. To prepare for your appointment, make a list of any eating, purging, or exercising habits that concern you, and how frequently you engage in them. This can help you feel more prepared and ready to be honest with yourself and your physician the day of your appointment. You might also want to write down questions you have from your doctor and pertinent medical information.
Finally, if you can, jot down a few reasons why you feel motivated to take care of your mental and physical health. You can turn to these reasons if you begin to feel too afraid or embarrassed to take the next step.
What will happen at the doctor’s office?
If you go to the doctor, he or she may ask you about your eating and exercising habits, your family’s medical history, and your thoughts about your body image. The doctor may complete a physical exam as well to rule out other causes. You may also receive a referral to a mental health professional who can conduct a more in-depth assessment and determine whether you fit the criteria for a diagnosis. You should always feel free to jump in and ask any questions you have about treatment options and the best treatment options.
What can I do to protect my child from unhealthy eating habits?
Whether they realize it or not, parents have a significant amount of influence over their child’s behavior. While it’s important to encourage your child to eat healthy foods, you shouldn’t talk excessively about dieting or negatively about your own body image in front of them. Also, be aware of Internet content they might see that promotes anorexia as a lifestyle. If you’re not sure how to have a conversation with your son or daughter about their negative eating behaviors, talk to their doctor about warning signs and communication strategies.
What treatment options are available?
There are multiple treatment options for eating disorders, depending on the nature and severity of the symptoms. Most treatment recommendations however, include some type of psychotherapy and nutrition education.
Psychotherapy – also known as talk therapy or counseling, psychotherapy can help you examine thoughts and behaviors that lead to negative body image and eating behaviors. Therapy options might include cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help you examine irrational thoughts about your body and self-image and replace unhealthy ways of coping with healthier ones.
Some mental health professionals also recommend family therapy, because they have found that improving family dynamics, reducing family stress, and improving communication can reduce stress that influences eating disorders, particularly among teenagers and children.
Nutritional education – For people who are extremely underweight, a major goal of treatment will be to help an individual return to a healthy body weight. All individuals, however, can benefit from learning the basics of a healthy diet and help them develop safe, and healthy eating habits. Doctors, nurses, and nutritionists can help you with these goals.
In-patient treatment – A doctor may recommend in-patient treatment if malnutrition or other complications are serious or even life threatening. In-patient care is more intensive, as a patient can receive round the clock care, nutritional interventions, and individual counseling to promote good mental and physical health.
Medication – Medication is available to reduce the urge to binge eat or purge food. Some people find that antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication can also assist with stress and symptoms that promote unhealthy eating habits. While no medication can cure an eating disorder, it’s important to talk with your doctor about whether this option might be a valuable intervention.
What can I do today about my damaging eating behaviors?
Today you can make the commitment to give others the opportunity to support you on your journey towards feeling healthy and whole again. Lean on your support network, even if they can’t completely understand what the experience is like. Lean on your doctor and mental health professionals who can give you the best care that you need. Your life may not change overnight, but with the right first steps and that first phone call, you can trust that someday you’ll look in the mirror and feel proud. Or better yet, you won’t even feel the need to look in the mirror at all.