Over 30 million people in the United States will suffer from a life-threatening eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Eating disorders are a serious psychiatric illness, where patients frequently battle a myriad of symptoms—physical, emotional, and behavioral—and share extreme beliefs about food, weight, and body image. It is not a “lifestyle choice”, a desire to be thin or achieve a certain weight.
Matt Keck, MFT, Clinical Director and Founder of Cielo House, a group of comprehensive treatment centers for eating disorders located in Northern California stated,
“90% of eating disorder patients also struggle with a co-occurring mental health problem. Eating disorders have close connections to substance abuse, trauma, and other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”
Who is at risk
Eating disorders may affect anyone regardless of age or gender. A person’s risk of developing an eating disorder depends on a number of factors which include psychological, physical, social, and environmental. Your risk of developing an eating disorder may be higher if a family member has had one, as eating disorders tend to run in families. A recent study conducted by Boston University Medical Center discovered a genetic risk factor for binge eating.
While women are more prone to eating disorders, adolescent boys, middle-aged women, and elderly males may also develop some form of eating disorder. Like women, men who have an eating disorder may experience a distorted self-body image or another condition called “muscle dysmorphia, a type of disorder marked by an extreme concern with becoming more muscular.”
Types of eating disorders
There are many forms of eating disorders. They all share a commonality in that they are characterized by extreme behaviors and attitudes surrounding food and weight issues. The most common types are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder.
- Anorexia nervosa causes individuals to become extremely underweight, while relentlessly pursuing thinness or refusing to maintain a healthy weight and considering themselves to be overweight. Considered a serious condition, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric conditions, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. People suffering from anorexia can experience serious medical conditions such as “brain damage, multi-organ failure, bone loss, heart difficulties, and infertility.”
- Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors, or behaviors designed to “make up for” the binge episode, such as purging or self-induced vomiting. Not all patients suffering from bulimia engage in self-induced vomiting; some exhibit non-purging behaviors, thus, making it very difficult to diagnose. The effects of bulimia can be subtle and hard to identify as patients often hide their behaviors very well. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with “bulimia nervosa usually maintain what is considered a healthy or relatively normal weight,” unlike anorexia nervosa. However, like anorexia nervosa, bulimia can result in serious health issues affecting the digestive system, a person’s oral health, the heart, and other organs.
- Binge-eating disorder, the most prevalent eating disorder, is characterized by frequent episodes of binge eating or compulsive overeating. These episodes involve significantly larger quantities of food in a shorter period of time than one would normally consume. The uncontrollable feelings brought on by binging are usually followed by guilt or shame. People with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese and are at risk of developing diabetes and serious cardiovascular issues.
What are the signs?
Recognizing that a person is suffering from an eating disorder is not always immediately obvious. The signs and symptoms of eating disorders can vary from person to person depending on which disorder they have. Often, these signs and symptoms are masked or concealed for a time period, as people with eating disorders become very good at hiding their disorder. And, the most obvious signs of severe weight loss are not always evident.
According to Keck, the most common signs of eating disorders are:
- Distorted or excessively negative body image
- Compensating for food; purging, over-exercise
- Excessive weight loss, rapid weight loss
- Odd eating habits: binge eating or eating very little, eating in secrecy or hiding/hoarding food
- Patterns around food or weight cause substantial decrease in overall life functioning or enjoyment
- Changes in energy level: lower than normal or extremely high, over-exertion or perfectionism
A person’s environment is also a factor in determining whether he or she is experiencing signs of an eating disorder. Stress, trauma, or changes in a person’s life may provide additional insight.
Treatment and recovery
Attempts at treatment may be met with resentment, fear, or denial because patients feel by achieving their “ideal weight,” they can resolve their disordered eating. According to ANRED, a non-profit dedicated to the education of eating disorders, “between 20 and 30 percent of people who enter treatment drop out too soon and relapse.” Keck says,
“The process of coming to terms with and accepting help is grueling For those with eating disorders, their disorders have been their most reliable and sometimes only form of coping with emotional pain.”
Recovery from an eating disorder is a life-long process requiring ongoing thoughtful and comprehensive care. But it is possible. A recent study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital found that two-thirds of patients do recover from eating disorders with professional treatment.
The type of treatment depends on the severity of the condition and the extenuating health circumstances of the disorder. “Some patients need serious medical treatment requiring hospitalization so that acute health problems can also be addressed,” stated Keck. “Other patients may seek treatment in a non-hospital environment, offering therapy, medical care, and nutrition support. It depends on the progression and severity of a patient’s condition.” Keck says that you should,
“Seek treatment immediately if you suspect a friend or loved one is suffering from an eating disorder. It could be a matter of life or death.”
Barbra Watson brings 20 years of communications experience in the healthcare, academic, financial and non-profit sectors, directing the public relations activities for several non-profit organizations providing strategic public relations counsel, crisis communications, and media relations. She has also written for daily newspapers as well as several online news sites.
Barbra received her B.A. in English from Boston College and her M.A. in Mass Communications and Public Relations from the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. She resides in the Boston area.