Disordered eating is an issue of mental health, addiction and physical health. Close to 24 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder and more people die from one than any other mental illness. Young women are especially susceptible to developing an eating disorder, but it can impact anyone of any age. By becoming familiar with the signs and symptoms of eating disorders you can help prevent them in yourself and those close to you.
What Are Eating Disorders?
It is important to understand what an eating disorder is and to be aware of the different types. This group of conditions is characterized by an obsession – bordering on addiction – with food, eating and weight. The underlying issues are psychological, but the disorders cause serious physical harm, and even death in the most extreme cases.
There are four recognized eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by obsessing with weight and eating very little in order to lose weight. Someone with bulimia nervosa is also obsessed with weight, but copes with that obsession by binging on food and then purging. Purging may include vomiting, using laxatives, excessive exercise or periods of starvation. Binge eating disorder is characterized by binging, but without following it up with a purge. Finally, when symptoms are present but do not meet the criteria for the above three disorders, a person may have an eating disorder not otherwise specified, or EDNOS.
What Are the Signs of an Eating Disorder?
The signs that someone with an eating disorder displays vary depending on the type. However, they all have in common an obsession with food, eating and weight. Someone with any type of eating disorder has strong emotions attached to food and eating as well. They often feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment around food and the act of eating, especially in front of others. They also may obsess over weight and spend countless hours using a scale and thinking about how to lose weight.
The signs of anorexia also include eating very little. Weight loss, leading to extreme thinness, is also characteristic of anorexia. Anorexics have a difficult time recognizing the severity of their weight loss. They always think they could be thinner, even when dangerously skinny. The physical symptoms of anorexia include insomnia, growth of hair on the body, irregular menstruation, dry skin, constipation, low blood pressure, dehydration and an irregular heartbeat.
Someone with bulimia binges on food and often feels out of control when doing so. He or she follows that binge with a period of vomiting, starvation or other purging technique out of the guilt and shame of eating too much. A bulimic may get up during meals to frequently use the bathroom, obsess over exercise or use laxatives. Physical signs of this type of behavior include damaged teeth from vomiting, swollen cheeks, dehydration, an irregular heartbeat, disrupted menstruation, mouth sores and sores on the knuckles.
Binge eating is characterized by binging, without purging. The binge periods are often out of control and followed by intense feelings of self-loathing, guilt and shame. Binging often occurs in private. Someone with this disorder is likely to be overweight. He or she will often eat alone, and, when binging, will eat quickly and to the point of discomfort or pain. Someone with EDNOS may have any of the characteristics of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. His or her symptoms may be more varied and less extreme, but still serious and dangerous.
If you recognize any of the signs of eating disorders in yourself, be aware of what you are doing and why. If you find you can’t correct your behaviors, emotions or thoughts about eating and weight, you may need to seek professional help. Recognizing these signs in a loved one is also important; he or she may need your intervention.