Sometimes you may find yourself stuffing your face with chips, ice cream, donuts, or my personal favorite “guilty pleasure” food- ramen. Been there, done that. Sometimes you may find yourself with a low appetite as you simply don’t feel hungry. Been there, done that. Sometimes these changes in appetite are followed by feelings of guilt. Been there, done that. Many of us may have fluctuations with our diet on a day-to-day basis, as changes in hormones, mood, activities, and more affect our consumption or lack thereof food. However, what defines what is a normal relationship with food, and when do these fluctuations become an eating disorder?
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are mental health conditions that manifest in unhealthy consumption behaviors such as purging, binging, and severe food restriction caused by an obsession with food and/or body shape. They can affect anyone regardless of their weight, health, body shape, age, sex, etc. There are an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States alone who will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Nearly 13% of people experience an eating disorder before they reach the age of 20 (Petre, 2019). Understanding what causes and characterizes eating disorders will allow us to not only look out for ourselves but also in other people.
What causes eating disorders?
Like many mental health conditions, an exact set of circumstances that causes eating disorders is nonexistent. However, a nuanced interaction of numerous genetic factors, personality traits, brain structure, neurotransmitter prevalence, and cultural influences serve as possible initiators in the development of eating disorders.
What are the symptoms of the most common eating disorders?
- Anorexia Nervosa is one of the most well-known eating disorders. This mental health condition causes an individual to develop a distorted body-image in which they view themselves as overweight, despite being dangerously underweight. Those with restrictive anorexia excessively exercise and restrict their intake of food. In contrast, binge eating and purging type anorexia is characterized by consuming large amounts of food in a binge followed by purging activities, such as taking laxatives, extensive exercising, and vomiting.
- Bulimia Nervosa is another well-known eating disorder caused by a fear of gaining weight. Individuals with Bulimia Nervosa participate in uncontrollable binging behaviors- consuming abnormally large amounts of food to the point of discomfort- followed by purging episodes of self-induced vomiting, taking laxatives, diuretic, obsessive exercising, and more. Stomach acid from vomiting has a dangerously low pH, causing some with Bulimia Nervosa to develop tooth decay, sore throat, and acid reflux.
- Binge Eating Disorder is one of the most prevalent eating disorders in the United States. It often leads to obesity or weight gain, as individuals consume large amounts of food during binges and do not follow-up with purging behaviors, like those that characterize Bulimia Nervosa.
What can be done to support those with eating disorders?
Those who’ve recovered from eating disorders have stated support from loved ones has been one of the most crucial factors in their recovery. If you are experiencing an eating disorder, the best thing you can do for yourself is to reach out to loved ones. This is the most difficult, but most important step to take and once you’ve succeeded in this, you’ve already overcome the most difficult part in your recovery. There is no shame in coming forward-stay strong!
If you know someone who is going through an eating disorder, your support is vital to their recovery, to prevent permanent health damage and even in extreme cases, death. Speaking to them is a daunting task that takes great courage, but some guidelines from the National Eating Disorders Association may help you in this.
- Be honest and let them know your concern for them.
Focusing your conversation with them on expressing your concerns for their well-being well let them know you truly care about their recovery. Giving people genuine support will help give them the strength to recover.
- Ensure that the conversation doesn’t become defensive.
Those with eating disorders are participating in unhealthy habits. However, these behaviors are out of their control and explaining their behavior to them is unhelpful. Not only will this make them feel worse about themselves, but it undermines the very cause of eating disorders- mental health conditions that are out of their control. Avoid using statements such as “You’re not eating! You’re exercising too much!” and instead, focus on expressing your concerns for their wellbeing with “I” statements such as “I’m worried about how frequently you’re going to the gym”.
- Remove Stigma.
Much of the reason why those with eating disorders struggle to come forward for health is because of fear of judgement. Even if you don’t believe you have a stigma towards mental health, actively remind yourself of being the most understanding and accepting as you can be.
- Don’t simplify solutions.
“Just eat more. Just stop. Just don’t eat.” Eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of biological, environmental, cultural, and social factors that manifest itself in an uncontrollable mental health disorder. Doing this can make the individual feel guilty, and misunderstood.
- Encourage them to seek professional help.
Therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists are all trained medical professionals specially to help those with mental health disorders. Along with emotional support from friends and family, they can provide the most accurate and effective technical and emotional support treatment. Timeliness of help is imperative to recovery, so guide them towards treatment as soon as possible. Furthermore, don’t simply say “seek out”. Actively give them the resources by giving them the number of a professional, the address to a clinic, etc. to reduce the obstacles standing between them and getting the treatment they need. Obstacles standing in the way of them receiving treatment will deplete their low motivation to receive treatment.
Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders that can cause immense physical harm. Understanding their prevalence, symptoms, and helpful support methods is the first step to supporting those with these serious diseases. If you or a loved one is experiencing this, know that both professional and friendly resources are available to support one another. Stay strong, and keep your heads up, teens! 🙂
National Eating Disorders Association. (2018). Help and support. NEDA. Retrieved
August 14, 2020, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/
National Eating Disorders Association. (2018). How to Help a Loved One. NEDA.
Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
Petre, A., MS, RD. (2019, October 30). 6 Common Types of Eating Disorders (and
Their Symptoms). Healthline. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from