What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder involves an abnormal relationship with food — either eating less or over-eating — with negative effects on one’s physical or mental health. The most common eating disorders are:
Anorexia nervosa is most commonly recognised by fast and unhealthy weight loss. It is characterised by
- Restriction of eating, to levels that lead to significantly low body weight
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Warped or inaccurate sense of bodyweight and shape
There are two subtypes of anorexia nervosa: restricting type, where weight loss is attributed to dieting, fasting and/or excessive exercise. And binge-eating/purging type, which involves recurrent self-induced vomiting, or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas.
Anorexia nervosa is far more common clinically in females than males, and usually begins during adolescence or young adulthood. Many people with anorexia nervosa report also experiencing an anxiety disorder and other disorders such as bipolar, depression or OCD.
Where a sufferer of anorexia will dramatically cut their calorie intake to the point of starvation, bulimia usually involves a cycle of binge-eating and recurrent compensatory behaviour to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, or the misuse of laxatives or diuretics.
Bulimia is often associated with obesity and concerns about body weight.
Binge-eating disorder features episodes of binge-eating, similar to bulimia, in a specific timeframe, much more than what is normal or healthy and a sense of lack of control, often when one is not hungry or is uncomfortably full. This is often followed by a sense of disgust, embarrassment or guilt afterward.
However, unlike bulimia, binge-eating disorder is not associated with any extreme compensatory behaviour such as vomiting, fasting or extreme exercise.
Bing-eating disorder has associated health risks, including increased risk for weight gain and development of obesity.
What are some of the signs?
You or someone close to you may have an eating disorder if they:
- Eat very little or far too much, including at meal times and throughout the day and night
- Express dissatisfaction with their weight or body shape
- Self-induce vomiting after meals
- Abuse of laxatives or diet pills
- Compulsively move between their scales and the jogging track or gym
- Are obsessive or secretive about unhealthy eating habits, both under-eating or binge-eating
Causes of an eating disorder
There are many factors that combine to cause an eating disorder. These include:
- Social factors: Having negative role models in their direct environment and in the media can cause people to be irrationally dissatisfied with their bodies and lead to internalisation of body weight ideals.
- Biological factors: Some people are genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder, this can be related to family history and childhood factors such as pubertal maturation, for example maturing earlier than their peers.
- Personality factors: People with eating disorders often have low self-esteem, can be highly sensitive and perfectionists
- Environmental factors: Eating disorders can occur during a stressful time of life, such as pregnancy, puberty, relationship difficulties, loss or trauma.
Strategies to manage or prevent eating disorders
Creating positive role models for oneself and others with regard to body shape, weight and food can be pivotal in preventing an eating disorder in young people. You can also take action to minimise stress and depression, which can sometimes result in compensatory eating. Identify any possible genetic risk factors for eating disorders and other related illnesses such as depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. Learn about healthy eating behaviours and try to develop positive habits and thoughts around food and exercise.
When to seek professional assistance
Especially in the case of anorexia nervosa, where the person may be dangerously underweight or malnourished, professional help is very important. Anorexia can cause long-term damage to bones and overall growth and can even lead to premature death, having the highest mortality rate of all mental disorders. If someone close to you has the signs of an eating disorder, speak to them and encourage them strongly to seek help.
How Psychology Melbourne can help
Psychology Melbourne has a number of psychologists who specialise in the field of eating disorders, and treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), family therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) are all established methods of treatment for anorexia, binge eating disorder and bulimia.
By creating a safe and trusting environment, our experienced psychologists can help acknowledge and change disruptive or dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviour, and promoting healthier relationships with eating.
Our Eating Disorders Counselling Team
Dr Giovanna Lajbcygier