Many of us have a complicated relationship with food. It can be one of the most pleasurable things in life—like a romantic dinner—but it can also be a complex and difficult thing for many. For those people who struggle in their relationship with food, the cause may be an eating disorder.
But what exactly are eating disorders, and where do they come from? Can they be treated?
Read on to get answers to the above questions so you can be more informed about eating disorders.
Eating Disorders 101
Due to their name, eating disorders sound like they’re all about food and eating, but they’re much more complex than that. A diagnosed eating disorder is a legitimate mental health condition, and it deserves to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, many people dismiss eating disorders and the names of serious eating disorders—like anorexia and bulimia—are casually thrown around and joked about.
Millions of people in the United States and millions more around the world currently face or have faced an eating disorder. Many times, however, eating disorders fly under the radar due to societal stigma and shame.
In general, eating disorders share a common origin as well as similar symptoms. They tend to arise out of an unhealthy obsession with food, weight, exercise, and/or personal appearance. Generally speaking, there is an issue with self-esteem among those who have an eating disorder, and it can develop and be exacerbated by unrealistic expectations perpetuated in popular culture and on social media.
While eating disorders are most common with young women, people of any age and gender identity can have one. Due to social stigma, it is quite possible that eating disorders are largely underreported among boys and men.
Eating disorders are a serious mental health concern and they need to be proactively treated. If you need more guidance on eating disorders, you might consider checking out these useful resources.
Types of Eating Disorders
Now, let’s take a look at a few of the most common eating disorders.
You’ve likely already heard of anorexia. It’s the most common and probably the most well-known eating disorder.
Anorexia (medical name: anorexia nervosa) tends to develop early in life, usually in adolescence (the period from puberty to adulthood). Those with anorexia feel as if they are overweight, even if they’re actually underweight.
Anorexia can be an extremely dangerous condition and can cause all sorts of health problems. As with all the eating disorders covered here, anorexia is a mental health issue and needs to be treated proactively.
There are two main types of anorexia: restrictive anorexia and binge/purge anorexia.
Individuals who restrict themselves will generally aim to lose weight by eating very little and exercising excessively.
Individuals who binge and purge will typically engage in purging activities after eating. Whether they eat a lot (binging) or a little, the purging generally consists of vomiting, taking laxatives, and/or exercising excessively.
Bulimia is another well-known eating disorder and is commonly thought of as the eating disorder that involves binging and purging. As seen above, though, this can be a type of anorexia as well.
What distinguishes bulimia is that it involves eating an unusually large amount of food (binging) before purging. Individuals with bulimia will generally feel like they don’t have control over themselves while binging. They will eat until they literally cannot anymore.
To make up for all the calories consumed, they will then purge via the same methods as listed above in the anorexia section.
Symptoms can be quite similar between anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In general, however, individuals with bulimia tend to have a more normal weight and thus may not be as easily identifiable as having an eating disorder.
Just like anorexia, bulimia is a mental health issue and needs treatment. Due to constant binging and purging, bulimia can take a toll on the stomach lining, throat, and mouth, with symptoms such as eroded tooth enamel, acid reflux, a sore throat, and even hormonal issues.
3. Binge Eating Disorder
Binge eating disorder is considered to be another common eating disorder.
While binge eating disorder may sound very similar to anorexia and bulimia, it is distinct in that individuals with binge eating disorder do not engage in purging.
As such, individuals with binge eating disorder tend to be overweight or obese.
The unhealthy connection with food generally has psychological roots as well as a physiological connection (addiction to fat, sugar, and salt). As such, it is important to seek help for binge eating, especially as it can eventually lead to significant health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
4. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
Also known as ARFID, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder is a type of disordered eating where individuals are “picky” about what they eat and so they do not consume adequate food.
The culprit is often various smells, textures, tastes, temperatures, etc. For example, someone may not want to eat bananas or avocados due to their soft, “mushy” consistency.
ARFID is not simply “picky eating,” however. It must cause enough of a disruption to the person’s diet to be considered unhealthy.
Bigorexia may sound made up, but it’s a genuine mental health condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5).
In essence, bigorexia is a body dysmorphic disorder, which means that those who have it cannot objectively perceive their bodies. They tend to unhealthily obsess over their bodies to the point that they may develop disordered eating habits in the pursuit of a more muscular and/or more toned body.
This can include fasting to an unhealthy degree or eating to the point of making themselves sick. Bigorexia does not always involve disordered eating, but this is often a main symptom.
Bigorexia would appear to affect young men the most, contrary to the other eating disorders listed here.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
It is absolutely vital that eating disorders be addressed as soon as possible. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. A doctor or licensed counselor can be a good first step, and there are also hotlines and online chat lines available to help.
There are a wide range of eating disorders, but many of them tend to share similar symptoms. Unfortunately, it would appear that eating disorders are on the rise, which may be due to the unhealthy effects of social media, television/films, and magazines. It is vital that we fight the stigma against eating disorders and resist the pressures of social media to only post flattering photos that have been edited and filtered.
The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.