Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness.
It may seem alarming to begin with such a jarring statement, but we feel it’s important in any discussion of eating disorders, to always be clear and aware of their dangers.
Eating Disorders are a type of mental illness in which a person’s life is negatively affected by disordered thoughts and behaviors about food, body and weight. While the onset of many eating disorders is common around the age of puberty, they can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status or background.
Similar to other mental illnesses, eating disorders have a range of complex causes and attributing factors. They can be biological, psychological and cultural. In addition, new research is suggesting links can exist between eating disorders and genetics.
Genetics and Biology
Research shows that people with a close relative who has an eating disorder are nearly 60 percent more likely to develop an eating disorder of their own. People tend to inherit similar brain functioning (how a brain sends signals), thus things such as mood, energy, appetite and other nervous system functions related to eating disorders can “run in the family.”
Many eating disorders can begin because a person wants to feel in control of something, and controlling the amount of food eaten can be their choice. Unfortunately, eating disorders are very convincing liars, and when they spiral out of control, a person’s brain can tell them they must continue this maladaptive behavior.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Some other eating disorders are rumination disorder and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. There are many symptoms both common and different to each eating disorder.
Below are general definitions of eating disorders, however eating disorders exist on a continuum and many people do not fit into a single category. Eating disorders come in many shapes and sizes, and anyone struggling with food, body and weight issues is encouraged to seek help, even if they feel they don’t fit into any of the following definitions.
Anorexia (an-o-REK-see-uh) nervosa – commonly known as anorexia is characterized by sometimes-excessive weight loss. The person struggling will have an intense fear of weight gain and will adopt many maladaptive eating behaviors in order to restrict calorie intake. People suffering from anorexia nervosa have the inability to see what their body truly looks like because they have a distorted body image. As the person becomes more emaciated, their image of themselves becomes more distorted.
These behaviors can lead to an unhealthily low body weight, plus other physical health complications, along with troubles in school or career, in relationships, and life.
Signs of Anorexia
Bulimia (boo-LEE-me-uh) nervosa – referred to as bulimia- is an eating disorder in which the person consumes a large number of calories in a short amount of time, usually done in secret due to the fear of gaining weight. The person then purges the food, usually through self-induced vomiting, or through the use of laxatives and/or excessive exercise.
Similar to anorexia, if you have bulimia you may have a distorted view on the appearance of your body, inaccurate to the reality.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge-eating disorder is an eating disorder in which the person struggling consumes an abnormally large amount of food in a short period of time, but does not purge the food. Typically, the person feels a lack of control during this binge and a cycle of immense shame most often follows.
Avoidant or Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
ARFID is often described as being a form of “extreme picky eating.” Avoidant/Restrictive Eating Disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder centered on the fear of food and/or the consequences of eating. Those suffering from ARFID can literally, or subconsciously, believe consuming certain foods can be fatal to them. The physiological constriction of the mouth tissues, throat, and digestive tract from the fear stops the ability to eat a variety of foods. Malnutrition from ARFID causes many medical issues, including fatigue and loss of motivation. Because ARFID is a sensory disorder as well as an eating disorder, its cure is through somatic treatment.
OSFED – This category describes someone with symptoms of an eating disorder that cause clinically significant stress or impairment in the person’s life regarding food, body or weight.
Pica is persistently eating nonfood items, such as soap, cloth, talcum powder or dirt, over a period of at least a month. Eating these nonfood items can result in medical complications such as poisoning, intestinal problems or infections.
Rumination disorder is the constant regurgitation of food after a meal. Unlike vomiting, food rises back from the stomach, through the throat and into the mouth involuntarily without the effects of nausea and/or gagging.
This disorder can have severe health implications due to the body not receiving the nutrients from the food that was consumed. Rumination disorder is most commonly seen in infants or those with mental disabilities.
Eating disorders affect all genders and can occur across a wide age range. Most commonly, anorexia or bulimia have been found affecting teenage girls and emerging adults often in their early 20s.
There are many influences that may elevate the risk of developing an eating disorder:
People with parents and siblings that have or had eating disorders are more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.
Mental Health Disorders
Pre-existing mental health conditions like anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder also play a role in eating disorders.
Dieting and Starvation
Dieting isn’t the cause of eating disorders but can often lead to over-controlling the amount of food you consume and a fixation on body and weight.
From minor to major life events, such as relationship problems, a new job, a lack of finances, or even moving, stress can contribute to someone starting an eating disorder, or it can contribute in an eating disorder becoming more severe.
Eating disorders can have many negative effects on mental and physical well-being, especially in the long term. This is why it’s important for someone struggling with an eating disorder to seek treatment. Eating disorders can lead to these complications, and others:
- Anxiety and Depression
- Substance abuse
- Trouble maintaining professional and personal relationships
- Damage to the brain
- Lack of motivation
- Suicidal behavior