Most people know generally what an eating disorder is, but the specific types, causes, and symptoms remain a mystery. Eating disorders, in very broad terms, are disorders revolving around an unhealthy relationship with food. They tend to develop in teenage or young adult years, but it is not uncommon for them to develop in those older or younger as well. Eating disorders are most common in girls and women, but that is not to say that there is not a community of men and gender nonconforming individuals who suffer as well. The cause of eating disorder development is still unknown, however there is a large amount of comorbidity (eating disorders tend to coexist with other mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.) While an eating disorder can be characterized as any unhealthy relationship with food, there are three main disordered eating categories into which many suffering from this disorder fall.
People suffering from anorexia nervosa experience severe body dysmorphia, seeing themselves as fat even when they are severely underweight. Symptoms associated with this type of eating disorder include a low body weight, restriction of food, an irrational fear of weight gain, body dysmorphia, and, in women and girls, a lack of menstruation once a low enough body weight is reached. These immediate symptoms can lead to more life threatening symptoms the longer they progress, such as osteoporosis, low blood pressure, and heart failure. Behaviors of those with anorexia nervosa can include stepping on the scale every day, or multiple times per day, portioning out food, and eating very little. They can also engage in other behaviors associated with weight loss, such as compulsive exercise, and excessive use of diuretics and laxatives.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves a dangerous cycle of bingeing (consuming thousands of calories of food in one sitting) followed by compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting. Those with bulimia report feeling out of control during a binge, and severely regretting their consumption afterwards. Also, as happens in other eating disorders, self esteem is linked directly to body image. The symptoms associated with this disorder include electrolyte imbalances from dehydration due to purging behaviors, which can lead to heart failure, inflammation of the esophagus from frequent vomiting, tooth decay, and constipation. Things to look out for in someone you suspect may be bulimic are the disappearance of a large amount of food in a short amount of time, frequent trips to the bathroom, a rigid exercise schedule, unusual cheek or jaw swelling, calluses on the back of hands and knuckles from induced vomiting, stained teeth, schedule changes, and social withdrawal.
Binge-eating disorder, or BED, has all the typical behaviors of bulimia nervosa, minus compensatory behaviors. This means that BED is diagnosed by the regular consumption of thousands of calories of food in one sitting, followed by feelings of intense guilt or shame. These episodes have the tendency to lead to obesity in the person suffering. Therefore, BED can lead to several health complications associated with being overweight. Things to look out for in someone who may have this eating disorder are the disappearance of large amounts of food in a short amount of time, the tendency to hoard food, skipping meals but not losing weight, and wearing baggy clothing.
While these are just the main categories under the umbrella term ‘eating disorders,’ it is important to note that eating disorders can encompass any unhealthy relationship with food, and are very dangerous to an individual’s physical and mental well-being. It is also important to understand that eating disorders may not be visible from the outside – just because someone seems to be at a normal weight does not mean he or she is not suffering. Overall, if you suspect someone you know may be suffering from an eating disorder, it is important to seek help as soon as possible.