Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses that involve the use of food and food related behaviors as unhealthy coping mechanisms. The coping mechanisms chosen are a danger to the persons health and wellbeing to such a degree that they effect every part of the person’s life and functioning. They are not just about food or weight and need to be taken seriously. If left untreated these illnesses can be fatal.
Because eating disorders show up in so many ways it is important to understand that warning signs vary and to dispel some common myths about what a person with an eating disorder will look like or behave.
Common myths regarding eating disorders
Myth 1: All people with eating disorders are underweight
People with eating disorders can be any weight, you can suffer from the worst effects of the disease while at a healthy weight. Some types of eating disorders are more obvious physically (as in severely underweight or overweight individuals) but these are psychological disorders and are often not immediately visible by the persons weight or shape. It is important to look for warning signs of these disorders as all manifestations of the disease pose a real threat to the sufferers physical and mental health.
Myth 2: Eating disorders are all about food
The causes of eating disorders are often complex. They are not caused by a cultural or social pressure be thin, by dieting or by bad eating habits learned in childhood; however, these may all contribute to the eating disorder development. They may arise after traumatic events, may be developed after an attempt to ‘transform’ oneself physically or even be sought out as a means to control weight and shape.
Myth 3: People usually grow out of eating disorders
Eating disorders are not a phase that someone will grow out of. Recovery involves physical and psychological treatment to address the health implications caused by the disease and to help the person to develop better coping mechanisms for life.
Myth 4: My therapists job is to FIX me
There is no magic pill to cure eating disorders. Recovery is personal in that the person must wish to recover. Medical and Psychological interventions are sometimes appropriate even when the person is not yet ready to recover but full recovery requires collaboration between the person and the supports available to them.
Myth 5: Aren’t these just a problem for adolescent women from western countries?
Eating disorders are not just a problem in the western world. They are prevalent in Asia and the problem here is amplified by the lack of resources available to educate, intervene and treat these disorders.
Eating disorders do not discriminate. They are most commonly developed in adolescents but they are also prevalent in adults. In fact, more and more adults are coming forward with problems which have developed much later in life. Men and women suffer from eating disorders and they are suffered by people of all income levels.
Types of eating disorders
There are many types of eating disorders and people suffering from one may also be at risk from suffering from others as they attempt to get symptoms under control. but I urge you not to obsess about diagnosis before seeking help. These diagnosis may help your medical professional to determine the best approach to clinical treatment but should not be used to identify the person suffering. Suffering from an eating disorder is like having any other disease. You are not defined by your diagnosis. You have your own values, wants, needs and preferences and recovery is about finding tools to enable you to live your best life.
These are some of the commonly known classifications of eating disorders. Please check out my links page which has links to global and regional eating disorder associations who have lots of great explainers and information regarding the details of specific types of eating disorders.
Anerexia is probably the most commonly referenced eating disorder. The person suffering will restrict intake of energy and thus become underweight. The person will also have an extreme fear of weight gain and food. Think of this as the restricting disorder.
Bulimia Nervosa is best known as the purging disorder. A person suffering from the disorder will have the intense fear of gaining weight like in restriction disorders but they may eat normal amounts or excessive amounts of food. They then compensate for the energy intake by self-induced vomiting, laxative use or over-exercising. You can be classified as having both Anerexia and Bulimia if you are severely underweight and using compensative actions like purging to maintain a low weight.
Binge Eating Disorder
Binge Eating Disorder is the intake of excessive quantities of food as a coping mechanism for life. People without eating disorders may binge now and then or overindulge however people with binge eating disorder do this to cope with life and do it regularly and compulsively.
OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder)
Eating disorders often do not fall neatly into a known classification and a person may be exhibiting the symptoms or implications of many of the categories above. This is classified as OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) and used to be called EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). It is important to note that this type of eating disorder is no less serious an issue for people and needs to be taken seriously.
Regardless of the type of eating disorder, warning signs can be wide and varied so please check out my list of warning signs here.