Despite popular belief, there are many different eating and feeding disorders. The reasons and causes behind eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food are varied and complex. While there is not any one reason, a range of factors including genetics, biology, psychology and environment can combine and contribute. Even with extensive research being carried out in the UK and across the globe, there is still much to be learned about what can cause eating disorders. However, we do know that there are effective treatments available.
The DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) lists eating disorders under the category of ‘’Feeding & Eating Disorders’’ and defines them as being ‘’characterized by a persistent disturbance of eating or eating-related behaviour that results in the altered consumption or absorption of food that significantly impairs physical health or psychosocial functioning.’’
Types of eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder (BED)
- Rumination disorder
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)
- Unspecified feeding or eating disorder (UFED)
What are the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder?
Symptoms vary for each disorder but common behavioural signs to look out for are:
- Obsession with body image and perceived physical flaws
- Abnormally high or low body weight
- Evidence of binge eating (disappearance of large quantities of food in a short time period, empty food wrappers/containers)
- Evidence of purging (going to the bathroom frequently after meals, smell or sound of vomiting, packets of laxatives)
- Wearing loose and baggy clothing to hide the body
- Feelings of guilt and shame around eating habits
- Excessive exercise
- Food rituals such as excessive chewing
- Fixation on calorie counting
- Drastic dieting
- Avoiding eating in front of others
While awareness of mental health conditions is improving, there is still a low level of knowledge on eating disorders within the community. Here, we set out to demystify some common misconceptions which can stop people with eating disorders to seek the help they deserve.
Everyone who has an eating disorder is underweight
It may surprise you to hear that there is actually only one eating disorder which has a weight component to its diagnosis, anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is commonly associated with low-weight however this isn’t true for those with binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED). At face value it may appear that eating disorders are strictly about food and weight, however they are often driven by attempts to cope with underlying emotional issues and mental ill-health.
Eating disorders are a choice
There can be many reasons why individuals develop an eating disorder however it is not simply a choice by the patient or a parent. Eating disorders occur due to severe underlying pathological issues which cause the individual to develop destructive habits and behaviours. They are complex medical illnesses which often co-exist with other mental health issues. The association between obsession with body image and eating disorders has encouraged the misconception that eating disorders are driven purely by vanity and lifestyle choices to attain body ‘goals’.
Eating disorders aren’t severe mental illnesses
Eating disorders are incredibly serious conditions with the highest mortality rate among all mental health disorders. Eating disorders are life threatening and can cause many serious medical complications which affect every organ in the body.
Only women can develop eating disorders
While it is true that women are a high-risk group and that most eating disorders develop between the ages of 12 and 25 years, it is not only adolescent women who can develop eating disorders. Eating disorders are not limited to any one gender, age, culture or background.
Other high-risk groups include:
- People who have other mental illnesses
- People experiencing high levels of stress
- Athletes, dancers and models
- People with physical illnesses such as diabetes and polycystic ovary syndrome