What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are characterized by extreme disturbances in eating behaviours and related thoughts and feelings. People with an eating disorder experience an overwhelming, consuming drive to be thin and a morbid fear of gaining weight and losing control over eating. There can be very serious physical and psychological consequences if an eating disorder is left untreated.

What are the different types of eating disorders?

 Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder are all classified as eating disorders. Often, people don't fit neatly into one of these categories but still fulfill criteria for an eating disorder (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

Bulimia

People experiencing bulimia go on regular eating "binges", which involve consuming large amounts of food in relatively discrete periods of time whilst accompanied by feelings of being out of control of one's food intake. Bingeing may be used as a way of coping with anger, depression, stress and sadness. The binge eating is usually followed by feelings of guilt and anxiety about becoming fat which results in a need to get rid of the food. Common ways of trying to compensate for binging include vomiting or "throwing up," over exercising to burn the calories, taking laxatives, diuretics or diet pills and skipping meals.

Some common symptoms of bulimia include:

  • eating unusually large amounts of food
  • being secretive about what is eaten and when
  • visiting the bathroom after eating (to vomit)
  • over exercising, even exercising when injured or unwell
  • being very critical of one's self
  • feeling moody, depressed, regularly tired/lacking energy
  • sore throat, decaying teeth
  • weight going up and down all the time, or large weight gains

Anorexia

People with anorexia have an intense desire to lose weight and be thin. Although people with anorexia are usually underweight, they generally believe that they are overweight. Food, weight and appearance become extremely important. They also deliberately maintain a very low, unhealthy body weight and, if female, often have absent menstrual cycles. Concentrating on food and weight becomes a way of dealing with or managing intense emotions or emotional difficulties that they are experiencing.

Some common symptoms of anorexia include:

  • being afraid of putting on weight
  • calorie counting, and/or obsessively avoiding high fat food
  • losing lots of weight in a short space of time
  • being hungry but not wanting to admit it
  • over exercising
  • obsessive weighing
  • getting cold easily
  • wearing baggy clothing
  • irregular (or absent) menstrual cycles (not getting their period)
  • brittle nails and hair, dry and yellow skin
  • preference to eating alone or only eating around other people
  • feeling depressed and irritable
  • fine body hair on the trunk and face

What causes eating disorders?

There is no clear cause for eating disorders. Eating disorders are probably a result of a combination of factors working together. These factors could include any or all of the following:

  • physical, emotional, or sexual trauma
  • cultural emphasis or preoccupation with body image ideals and slimness
  • relationships with peers and family
  • loss and grief
  • brain chemistry
  • physiological and psychological effects of dieting
  • stress or coping styles
  • genetic factors
  • a feeling of lack of control over one's life
  • low self esteem

What are the effects of eating disorders?

Physical effects

If left untreated, severe anorexia and bulimia can be life-threatening. However, the physical effects are generally reversible if the disorder is treated early. Some possible outcomes include:

  • harm to the kidneys
  • urinary tract infections and damage to the colon
  • dehydration, constipation and diarrhoea
  • seizures, muscle spasms or cramps (resulting from chemical imbalances)
  • chronic indigestion
  • loss of menstruation or irregular periods
  • strain on most body organs

Many of the effects of anorexia are related to malnutrition, including:

  • absence of menstrual periods;
  • severe sensitivity to the cold;
  • growth of down-like hair all over the body; and
  • inability to think rationally and to concentrate.

Severe bulimia is likely to cause:

  • erosion of dental enamel from vomiting
  • swollen salivary glands
  • the possibility of a ruptured stomach
  • chronic sore throat and gullet

Emotional and psychological effects

These are likely to include:

  • difficulties with activities which involve food
  • loneliness, due to self-imposed isolation and a reluctance to develop personal relationships
  • fear of the disapproval of others if the illness becomes known, tinged with the hope that family and friends might intervene and provide assistance
  • mood swings, changes in personality, emotional outbursts or depression

Where to go for help