It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, a time to shine a spotlight on disordered eating and educate ourselves and each other about this family of conditions which is all too common. In this article, we want to give you the basics so that you know how to identify and begin to deal with these conditions, whether you recognise their symptoms in yourself or in someone you care about.
Realising that you or someone you love has adopted habits that are consistent with an eating disorder can be scary, and it can be hard to know what to do in that situation. Eating disorders are mental health conditions where difficult situations and feelings are processed through the adoption of unhealthy eating habits. Worrying excessively about your weight or body shape can be both a symptom and a trigger for these unhealthy behaviours which may include eating too much, too little or adopting strict rituals around food.
The group most commonly affected by eating disorders is teenagers between 13 and 17, but anyone can be affected at any stage in life. Most people can recover from an eating disorder with proper treatment. Improved self esteem and confidence are a big part of recovery, alongside physical recovery and an improved attitude towards food. While the name and many of the symptoms of these disorders revolve around food, there is much more to them than simply eating or not eating.
Eating Disorder Types
The most common eating disorders include…
- Bulimia: losing control over how much you eat and then taking drastic action to not put on weight.
- BED – Binge Eating Disorder: Eating very large amounts of food in single sittings.
- Anorexia: Using excessive exercise and diet restriction to control your weight.
Destructive behavioral and emotional patterns can result from unhealthy coping mechanisms in those prone to disordered eating. The course of these complex mental health conditions can often only be altered through the intervention of medical and psychological experts. If left untreated, severe eating disorders can cause serious health consequences and may even result in death.
OSFED – Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder
Previously known as EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), OSFED is the name given to a disordered eating condition whose symptoms don’t exactly match those of any specific eating disorder. This is the most common eating disorder. Many types of eating disorder currently fall under the OSFED bracket, including orthorexia.
ARFID – Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Previously known as Selective Eating Disorder, ARFID is a new diagnosis given to those who limit their intake of food and/or avoid specific foods. The primary factor that distinguishes this disorder from anorexia nervosa is that it is not connected with any beliefs about body weight or shape. Instead, ARFID typically develops due to…
- A response to a past experience with food that was upsetting, for example choking or being sick after eating something.
- A lack of interest in eating or limited appetite.
- A negative response to certain foods’ smells, tastes or textures.
ARFID can persist into adulthood, though it usually develops initially during infancy or early childhood.
How Are Eating Disorders and Stress Connected?
We can’t avoid stress no matter how hard we work at it. The mental stress someone is under can be exacerbated by an eating disorder and the severe physical impact it has on the body. Episodes of binge eating, food restriction and purging are among the impulsive actions that stress can cause in someone with an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Symptoms
You could have an eating disorder if you or those around you are concerned that you have an unhealthy relationship with food. The following symptoms are worth watching out for:
- Avoiding socialising when you think food will be involved.
- Placing extreme limits on the amount you can eat.
- Feeling depressed, isolated or anxious.
- Having very strict habits or routines around food.
- Taking laxatives after you eat or making yourself throw up.
- Worrying about your body shape and size very often.
Other physical signs that are often connected with eating disorders include:
- Poor circulation, resulting in cold hands and feet or pain and tingling in your arms and legs.
- Feeling faint, having a very fast pulse or losing consciousness.
- Having a very low or high weight when compared to others your age and height.
- Not getting your period or other signs of delayed puberty.
- Diarrhoea, gas, constipation and other digestive issues.
- Feeling dizzy, lethargic or cold.
By the age of 20, up to 13% of young people may experience at least one eating disorder. There is also evidence to suggest that there is a genetic factor in the development of eating disorders.
What to Look out for in Other People
When a friend or loved one develops an eating disorder, it can be difficult to work out what is happening. It can be helpful to look out for the following warning signs:
- Pretending to weigh more or less than they really do or lying about how much they’ve eaten and when.
- Eating large amounts of food very quickly.
- A sudden increase in exercise.
- Eating very slowly or cutting food up very small.
- Wearing loose or baggy clothes to hide their weight loss.
- Avoiding eating with others.
- Going to the bathroom a lot after eating.
- Losing a large amount of weight.
A variety of symptoms can be present in someone with an eating disorder. Eating disorders can also be ‘atypical’. As a general rule, however, the symptoms will involve purging behaviours like over-exercising or taking laxatives, severe restriction of food and/or food binges. Just because someone doesn’t meet the full criteria for a specific condition does not mean they are not unwell.
Read All About It:
- Beat Eating Disorders: Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
- NIMH: Eating Disorders: About More Than Food
- Stice, Eric et al. “Prevalence, incidence, impairment, and course of the proposed DSM-5 eating disorder diagnoses in an 8-year prospective community study of young women.” Journal of abnormal psychology vol. 122,2 (2013): 445-57. doi:10.1037/a0030679
- Forbes: Social Media Can Increase Risk Of Eating Disorders And Negative Body Image
You can find out more about eating disorders in our book, The Essential Guide to Anorexia.