Eating disorders are complex mental and physical illnesses that affect people of all backgrounds. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), these disorders affect at least 9% of people worldwide. It’s estimated that approximately 10,200 deaths each year are the direct result of an eating disorder, and around 26% of people with eating disorders attempt suicide.
“One of the hardest aspects of eating disorders is that people have this impression that people are acting in a purposeful way,” says Lisa Luisi, Psy.D, a Licensed Psychologist in N.J. & N.Y. and the owner of New Life Counseling Psychology. “That’s a common myth — that people are purposefully deciding to eat in a disordered way. They’re actually very complicated conditions with many causative factors.”
Individuals with eating disorders are usually concerned with weight loss, dieting, and control of food. These concerns can manifest by engaging in behaviors like rituals, restriction of food, discomfort with eating around others, binging, purging, withdrawal, and isolation. There are also physical symptoms and signs of an eating disorder, which might involve the following: noticeable fluctuations in weight, weakness, impaired immune function, and electrolyte imbalances.
There are a number of different eating disorders, each with its own associated behaviors, symptoms, and attitudes. The following is an overview of some of the most common eating disorders:
Anorexia Nervosa: This disorder is characterized by weight loss and distorted body image. Individuals with anorexia nervosa often restrict the number of calories consumed and the types and quantity of food they eat. They might see themselves as overweight even if they are dangerously underweight.
Bulimia Nervosa: This disorder is characterized by a cycle of binge-eating large quantities of food and behavior that compensates for the binge-eating, such as forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination.
Binge Eating Disorder: This disorder is characterized by recurring episodes of eating large quantities of food, often quickly and to the point of discomfort. These episodes are often accompanied by a feeling of loss of control, shame, distress, or guilt, and unlike with Bulimia Nervosa, are not followed by compensatory behavior.
Orthorexia: This disorder is characterized by an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. People with orthorexia often become so fixated with this lifestyle that their own well-being is negatively impacted.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): previously referred to as “Selective Eating Disorder,” this disorder is characterized by limiting the amount and/or types of food consumed, but unlike anorexia, does not involve distress about body image.
Muscle dysmorphia: also known as “bigorexia'' or “megarexia,” this disorder is characterized by the belief that one’s own body is too small, skinny, or insufficiently muscular. This can occur even when that individual’s build is normal or even very muscular already. This disorder is predominantly common among men.
There are other disorders in addition to these as well, including Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder OSFED, Pica, Rumination Disorder, Laxative Abuse, and Compulsive Exercise.
“It’s really important to understand that the cause of eating disorders is multifactorial,” Luisi says. “Just like with other mental illnesses, there are genetic elements,
physiological elements, biological aspects, environmental factors, and societal factors. It’s really complicated.”
There are a number of common misconceptions and stigmas about eating disorders — individuals with eating disorders often struggle with receiving conflicting feedback or judgment and shaming from family, friends, and even healthcare providers. This can cause low self esteem, social isolation, and even hesitancy to seek help or treatment.
“We have to eat,” says Luisi. “It’s not like someone who struggles with substance abuse issues, where you can figure out or maintain an ability to be sober and to avoid. We can’t do that with food. We’ve got to have a relationship with food, and this makes it so much more complicated to find recovery.”
There are many ways to be an advocate for people struggling with eating disorders: supporting prevention efforts, promoting healthy body image, assisting in early detection of symptoms, and encouraging appropriate treatment, to start.
“It’s important to provide social support, acceptance, and to treat people with respect and dignity,” says Luisi. “We need to just lean in, try to be loving and caring with them, and help them to see and understand what’s going on. This can be very difficult because part of the condition includes, in many cases, the fact that there’s a disturbance in the way one’s body shape and weight is experienced. That’s a psychological issue with the condition — people aren’t deliberately not noticing, they actually can’t see their body accurately.”
Early intervention and treatment are important as well, because eating disorders can often become chronic — even when normal weight and health are achieved and maintained, there are sometimes still psychological effects that remain.
“It’s important not to jump to conclusions or make assumptions,” says Luisi. “This applies to family, friends, and community, but also to healthcare providers. We have to treat this with a bit of humility, because there are a lot of unanswered questions about eating disorders, and we need to keep trying to learn and help people to the best of our ability.”
Written by Kylie Kirschner
This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.