About Eating Disorders: Signs, Symptoms and Available Treatments

In America, thin is in. In fact, over $21 billion is spent in the U.S. on gym and health club memberships every year, and it seems like there’s a new media frenzy over rising obesity rates every month. While it might seem like a no brainer that it’s better to be slim and fit, there is a dark side to obsessing over how your body looks.

Though it’s hard to pin down a number with statistical accuracy, the National Eating Disorder Association estimates that as many as 10 million women in the United States suffer from a clinical eating disorder, accounting for between and 10 and 15 percent of the population. Though these conditions affect both genders, only about 15 percent of the reported cases are men. While binging and purging may seem like not such a big deal, even somewhat fashionable in a thin-obsessed culture, the truth is that as many as 20 percent of eating disorders are fatal, so there’s no such thing as taking them too seriously.

Different Types of Eating Disorders

Though there are a number of eating disorders, most fall into one of three different categories that are most recognizable. All eating disorders are categorized as mental illnesses, and no other type of mental illness accounts for more fatalities than these three issues.

  • Anorexia nervosa – This condition is characterized by restricting food intake to the point where weight loss is severe and unhealthy. Patients experience an unusual fear of gaining weight and have a self-image that is almost entirely centered on their weight.
  • Bulimia nervosa – While anorexia sufferers refuse food, bulimia most commonly follows a binge and purge cycle where patients gorge on an unhealthy amount of food and then vomit to eliminate the calories and avoid weight gain. People with bulimia may appear normal and healthy, but the disorder is also accompanied with a clear obsession with weight and appearance.
  • Binge eating disorder – This illness mimics bulimia with a pattern of excess eating. However, patients do not purge or vomit, and noticeable weight gain is often present. People with binge eating disorder feel unable to control their eating habits and usually feel extreme guilt.

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Signs and Symptoms

There is a particular symptom profile for each type of eating disorder. However, all are characterized by an obsession with food and a focus on body image that is out of the ordinary. If you aren’t sure if you or a loved one has an eating disorder, there are certain signs and symptoms you can look for to indicate that more serious attention may be warranted.

  • Hiding eating habits from friends and family
  • Exercising compulsively or more than two hours per day
  • Visiting the bathroom after every meal
  • Following diet plans stringently and without flexibility
  • Laxative use
  • Hiding food
  • Using drugs with appetite suppressing side effects
  • Refusing to eat meals with family or friends
  • Discomfort discussing diet or body image to the point where you withdraw from relationships you formerly enjoyed
  • Alternatively, excess discussion of body image, weight or outward appearance
  • Carefully tracking and controlling calories
  • Changes in menstruation patterns
  • Damage to hair and nails
  • Mouth sores or noticeable tooth decay
  • Dizzy spells or fainting

This list is not exhaustive nor is any one symptom an indication that you are dealing with a definite eating disorder. However, noticing a pattern of symptoms is a good clue to ask more questions and pursue medical intervention.

Health Consequences

Many people who have an eating disorder are unaware or in denial of the potentially serious health consequences of not treating their illness. Regardless of which eating disorder you are dealing with, the worst-case scenarios involve patients dying from their disease.

Anorexia patients are systemically starving their bodies, and key organs and systems are affected by the disease. Common health issues include heart failure, loss of bone density, a decrease in muscle mass and strength, severe dehydration, hair loss, and kidney failure. As far as the overall impact to health, anorexia is the most dangerous eating disorder with the most immediate health consequences.

While people dealing with bulimia also deprive their body of nutrients, some of what they eat is absorbed between binge sessions, and adverse health markers may take longer to present themselves. However, bulimia can also be extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. Many of the most visible health consequences of this disorder show up in the digestive system, with symptoms like ulcers, inflammation of the throat and mouth, stained or decayed teeth and irregular bowel function. Binging and purging can also throw off the balance of electrolytes in your body which can lead to serious heart conditions.

For people with binge eating disorder, they can expect to experience health issues that are related to obesity. Both high blood pressure and poor cholesterol readings are common conditions associated with the illness, and heart disease and diabetes are concern as well. Patients also often have issues with their gallbladder.

How to Reach Out for Support

After identifying an eating disorder in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to realize that you’re not alone. From a medical standpoint, you can expect support from both your family doctor and a mental health professional as the disease has both physical and emotional components. If you don’t already have access to a mental health specialist, your primary care physician can provide you with a referral.

Besides your medical team, numerous support groups can offer both solidarity and accountability as you work toward wellness. If no groups meet in your area, alternatives like online forums and Facebook groups can give you somewhere to turn when you need to talk to someone in a similar situation as yourself. Depending on your needs, you can choose either a professionally moderated support group or one that is run by members.

Getting Treatment

The underlying issues that lead to an eating disorder are different for every patient, so treatment plans are catered to each individual. While there are therapies that are widely used to treat these issues, you might have to try several approaches and combinations of options before finding the perfect plan for you.

  • Medication – Depression and anxiety can be associated with eating disorders, so your doctor may prescribe drugs to treat these conditions in combination with other eating disorder therapies.
  • Therapy – Most patients find that therapy is a cornerstone to their eating disorder treatment. Depending on the dynamics of your condition, your doctor may recommend group, individual or family counseling.
  • Nutritional Support – Attitudes about food need to be shifted to treat eating disorders successfully, and you may work with a nutritionist or dietitian to develop a food plan and learn what your body needs for optimum health.
  • Medical Intervention – Your doctor will monitor your weight and keep track of the health problems associated with your condition. If your case is particularly out of control, hospitalization or an in-patient treatment program may be advisable.

Dealing with an eating disorder can leave you feeling out of control and ashamed, but you are not alone in this fight. Millions of people, mostly women, suffer from these conditions. The good news is that help and treatment are available, and you can recover and go on to live a life of happiness and health by understanding this family of mental illnesses.