This week is eating disorder week, which is a time to take away the shame and fear from eating disorders and, as someone who spent a long time battling an eating disorder, I feel that we really need to do this.
There are a lot of assumptions about eating disorders – we all think of it as being represented by a skinny young woman but you don’t have to be female, or thin, to have one. Many people strive to keep their weight at a ‘healthy’ level using an eating disorder like bulimia, and many overweight people have an obsessive eating disorder.
There are many types of eating disorders but anorexia is the first one that comes to mind for most of us. This is a serious mental health issue, as sufferers limit their intake of food and often increase their exercise to lose weight. They do not see themselves as we would and cannot see their weight-loss, but only see that they need to lose weight. They develop a deep and obsessive fear of gaining weight and will not accept that they are thin.
Food is often the only thing an anorexic can control, while they perceive they have no power in other areas of their life. There is always an underlying reason why people develop anorexia and it usually doubles up with self-harm, addiction and low self-esteem.
Physically, the effects can quickly become serious as the body becomes starved and starts to close down its non-essential functions, such as reproduction (no menstruation or low sperm count), heat regulation (the body grows a layer of hair to retain heat as the body does not have the energy to do it normally) and muscles and bones lose their strength.
Binge eating disorder is often just labelled as people being greedy, but it is actually an obsessive and compulsive need to eat large amounts of food in a short period of time. Sufferers will eat unconsciously, until they cannot eat any more, and it’s not over indulgence but is actually quite painful and very shameful. Often binge eaters cannot remember what they ate or when. Again, this disorder is linked to a lack of control in areas of the sufferer’s life or a deep self-loathing.
Food is often the only thing an anorexic can control, while they perceive they have no power in other areas of their life.
Binges, over time, become ritualistic involving special plates, cooking methods and particular foods. It is a very private ritual and the binge eater will hide any evidence, often eating a normal meal with family before or after a binge. Binges create shame and disgust and both are so strong that a vicious circle begins, as the binge eater feels so bad they need something to stop the feelings and will binge again as soon as they can to temporarily stop the feelings.
Binge eating can lead to obesity, diabetes (as sweet foods are easy to binge on) and all the issues associated with being overweight. Binge eating is usually accompanied by anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
Bulimia is a binge and purge issue, where the sufferer eats large amounts of food and then purges it out by vomiting or extreme use of laxatives. Similar to binge eating, the bulimic feels very little control over the binge part of the illness, but then regains the control by purging out the food. Binges involve any food, or in severe cases, other substances if food isn’t available like soap and shampoo.
The obsession with the binge purge cycle will disrupt the sufferer’s life, as they have to plan them so that the binge and purge can take place within the right time frames to be successful and remain a secret. Like the binge eater the bulimic feels great shame and disgust at the binge, and like the anorexic, the bulimic feels they are overweight even when they usually appear to be of an average or low weight.
The vomiting usually included in bulimia causes physical damage to the teeth, larynx, and stomach, while the laxatives cause damage to the heart, stomach, intestines and colon. The sufferer will have severe tiredness, bloating, digestive issues and pain as the stomach becomes damaged and more sensitive over time.
Bulimics are often suffering with anxiety or self-harm and feel out of control in all areas of their life. The bulimia allows them to dull their feelings and then gain control as they binge and purge.
Orthorexia is another obsessive disorder where the sufferer is concerned about eating only pure or clean food. This again is based around control as it is being able to control food and its perceived quality.
Often the sufferer’s belief on what is healthy and what is not is very extreme and unrealistic. So, the sufferer will cut out entire food groups, nutrients or even colours of food. Eating food that is not considered healthy will lead to shame, disgust and in some case self-harm as a punishment.
Physically, the orthorexic will lose weight, be tired, lose muscle mass and become very weak very quickly. Often sufferers will be depressed and anxious as well as obsessed with food.
As we can see, eating disorders are the symptom of an underlying issue around self-esteem, abuse or lack of control etc. They are all based around an obsession about food in one way or another and there are more than listed here.
They can be scary and upsetting for others who are trying to support the sufferer as the obsession is normally really strong and dominates their lives. The first place to go is the GP who will be able to refer the sufferer on to services that can help.
Check out BEAT the eating disorder website that has a lot of support and details of helplines – https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/recovery-information/early-intervention
Know these signs of eating disorders in others:
- becoming obsessive about food
- having distorted beliefs about body size
- disappearing to the toilet after meals
- starting to exercise excessively
As early intervention is the best chance to recovered from an eating disorder.
Talking about the underlying issue at the same time as working with professionals around the eating disorder will help speed up the recovery. But the first step is to tell someone.
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