Are you or someone you know suffering from an eating disorder?

  • Published
  • By Agnese Walker MS, RDN, 6th Medical Group Nutritional Medicine Clinic

Eating disorders can affect girls and boys, women and men, people of all races and backgrounds; but because of the stigma or misperceptions, some people may not get the help they need.

It is important for people to understand what eating disorders are and what they are not. Eating disorders are not a silly desire to be thin, a figment of one's imagination, or a failing.

Although clinically defined as psychological disorders, eating disorders are associated with substantial and sometimes life-threatening nutritional and physiological complications.

In general, eating disorders can be defined as an ongoing disturbance of eating behavior or behavior intended to control body weight, which considerably impairs physical health and/or psychosocial functioning.

Typically, patients suffering from eating disorders present with the following: abnormal eating patterns, obsessive ideation about body size and weight and distorted body image.

Eating disorders occur on a continuum ranging from normal eating to diagnosable eating disorders. It is important to note that the diagnosis should not be based solely on physical appearance or even biochemical data, as these signs often do not appear until the disease state is progressed.

Many who suffer from disordered eating are of normal body weight and may appear outwardly healthy to family and friends. The obsession with food and exercise is often seen as remarkable self-discipline or as an acceptable method to achieve a healthy, lean physique. Therefore, many go undiagnosed until they develop a diagnosable disorder.

The three main conditions that fall under the category “eating disorders” are as follows: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

People with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight even though they are dangerously thin from starving themselves. People with bulimia nervosa eat unusually large amounts of food (binge eat) and then compensate by purging (vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics), fasting or excessive exercise. People with binge-eating disorder binge but do not purge and they often become overweight or obese.

Eating disorders may occur along with depression, substance abuse, or anxiety disorders, and can cause heart and kidney problems, even death. The disorders show up most frequently during teenage years, but there are indications they may develop earlier or later in life.

Dieting for weight loss is associated strongly with the later development of clinical eating disorders. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize the warning signs of disordered eating in order to prevent the later development of an eating disorder and to optimize treatment success.

Signs and symptoms may include the following:

  • Constantly weighing oneself
  • Exercising with the primary goal to burn energy
  • Avoiding social events to exercise or to skip meals
  • Excessive intake of caffeine
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness, lightheadedness or weakness
  • Being self-critical and having an intense preoccupation with weight/body image
  • Marked increase or decrease in weight not related to a medical condition
  • Sudden change in eating habits such as eliminating food groups
  • Development of abnormal habits such as ritualized behavior at meals
  • Severe dieting and restricting even when not overweight
  • Increased use of supplements, diuretics, laxatives
  • Trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Appearance of preoccupation with eating habits of others; may even prepare elaborate meals for others
  • Thinning or very dry hair
  • Frequent complaints of bloating or stomach pain after eating
  • Constant complaints of being cold

The most important thing to recognize is that these are real disorders that require treatment.

Eating disorders are serious, even life-threatening, medical illnesses that have biological and psychological causes. However, they are treatable and recovery is possible.

Eating disorders are not overcome through sheer willpower, however. The person will need treatment to help restore normal weight and healthy eating habits. Treatment also addresses underlying psychological issues.

Current treatment options may include mental health therapy, nutritional counseling by a registered dietitian and medicines.

Eating disorder treatment is available on an outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization and inpatient level.

Perhaps, most helpful of all, some studies have shown that early intervention in the development of an eating disorder has the best likelihood of long-term recovery.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with a possible eating disorder, schedule an appointment with your primary care manager who can assess the situation and make appropriate specialty referrals.