Eating disorders are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour.
A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health.
Eating Disorders are also known as Anorexia nervosa; bulimia nervosa; binge-eating disorder; eating disorder – not otherwise specified.
Types of eating disorders:
Eating disorders include a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. The most common eating disorders are:
- anorexia nervosa – when someone tries to keep their weight as low as possible, for example by starving themselves or exercising excessively
- bulimia – when someone tries to control their weight by binge eating and then deliberately being sick or using laxatives (medication to help empty their bowels)
- binge eating – when someone feels compelled to overeat
Causes of eating disorders:
Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex.
There may be some biological or influencing factors, combined with an experience that may provoke the disorder, plus other factors that encourage the condition to continue.
Risk factors that can make someone more likely to have an eating disorder include:
- having a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse
- being criticised for their eating habits, body shape or weight
- being overly concerned with being slim, particularly if combined with pressure to be slim from society or for a job (for example ballet dancers, models or athletes)
- certain characteristics, for example, having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder, low self-esteem or being a perfectionist
- particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of someone special
- difficult relationships with family members or friends
- stressful situations, for example problems at work, school or university
For anorexia nervosa, common symptoms include:
- Worrying more and more about our weight
- Eating less
- Exercising more
- Being unable to stop losing weight, even when we are below a safe weight
- Losing interest in sex
- In women, periods become irregular or stop. In men and boys, erections and wet dreams stop and testicles shrink.
For bulimia nervosa, common symptoms include:
- Worrying more about our weight (we may be at a normal weight)
- Causing vomiting and/or using laxatives
- Irregular periods in women.
Eating disorders can be treated either by self-help or professional help. The type of treatment that is appropriate depends on the severity of the disorder, with more severe conditions needing professional help.
Bulimia can be tackled using a self-help manual combined with guidance from a therapist. Anorexia usually needs help from a clinic or therapist. Self-help involves:
- Trying to stick to regular mealtimes – breakfast, lunch and dinner. If body weight is very low, they should have extra snacks.
- Keeping a diary of what is eaten, thoughts and feelings. This can be used to see if there are links between feelings, thoughts and what is eaten.
The GP can refer the patient to a specialist counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist. The eating disorder may have caused physical problems and a physical health check is advisable. The physical consequences of eating disorders may require additional treatment.
There are a range of specific treatments for anorexia including:
- Psychiatric support – A specialist will want to find out when the problem started and how it developed. The patient will be weighed and, depending on how much weight has been lost, may need a physical examination and blood tests.
- Psychotherapy or counselling – This involves talking to a therapist about thoughts and feelings. It can help to understand how the problem started and how a person can change some of the ways they think and feel about things.
- Eating advice – A dietician may discuss healthy eating. Vitamin supplements may be needed.
- Hospital admission – This is only an option if the patient is dangerously underweight or their condition is not improving. It involves controlling eating, carrying out physical checks and talking about thoughts and feelings.
Specific treatments for bulimia nervosa include:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy – This can be done with a therapist, with a self-help book, in group sessions, or with a computer programme. Cognitive behavioural therapy helps the patient to look at the links between thoughts, feelings and actions.
- Eating advice – This helps the patient to get back to regular eating, without starving or vomiting.
- Medication – Antidepressants can reduce the urge to binge. Unfortunately, without the other forms of help, the benefits wear off after a while.
Act before its too late:
Without treatment, most serious eating disorders will get worse over time. Most people with a serious eating disorder will end up having some sort of treatment. Although treatment usually carries on for a long time, many people do recover from the eating disorder. Ultimately, an eating disorder can cause death, but this is less likely to happen in people who do not vomit, use laxatives and drink alcohol.
An eating disorder can also cause other long-term changes to the body including an increased risk of developing osteoporosis, problems with dental health relating to tooth decay and problems related to fertility.