Eating disorders: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment
By NCVC Staff | Published on Oct 11, 2023
Disclaimer: Please note that this article discusses eating disorders, body image, and related topics that may be triggering for some individuals.
Eating disorders are complex conditions that affect millions of people globally. In the UK alone, it is estimated that around 1.25 million individuals struggle with an eating disorder. Contrary to popular belief, these disorders do not discriminate based on age, gender, race, or weight. Surprisingly, approximately 25% of those affected are male, and the majority of individuals with eating disorders are not underweight.
Understanding the Types of Eating Disorders
There are several types of eating disorders, each with its own distinctive characteristics. These include:
Anorexia nervosa: Individuals with anorexia nervosa strive to keep their weight as low as possible, often through severe dietary restrictions or excessive exercise. They may have a distorted view of their body, perceiving themselves as larger than they truly are.
Bulimia nervosa: Those with bulimia nervosa engage in unhealthy cycles of consuming large quantities of food and then employing compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives.
Binge eating disorder: This disorder involves recurrent episodes of consuming excessive amounts of food within a short period, often feeling a lack of control over their eating, similar to bulimia nervosa.
If the symptoms do not precisely match the criteria for any of these three disorders, an individual may be diagnosed with an “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED), which is the most common type of eating disorder.
Recognizing the Symptoms
Identifying the symptoms of an eating disorder is crucial for seeking appropriate help. Some common signs include:
- Restricting food intake or engaging in uncontrolled, excessive eating
- Developing strict habits, rituals, or routines around food
- Experiencing excessive concerns about body weight and shape
- Mood changes, such as anxiety, depression, or withdrawal
- Engaging in purging behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse
- Avoiding social situations involving food
- Withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities and social groups
- Physical indicators like feeling constantly cold, tired, or dizzy; experiencing digestive problems; or having weight that is significantly higher or lower than expected for their age and height.
Unraveling the Causes
Eating disorders are complex conditions influenced by a variety of factors. While there is no single cause, experts believe that a combination of biological, psychological, and social elements contributes to their development. Biological factors can include a family history of eating disorders or changes in brain and hormone levels. Psychological factors may involve low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or perfectionism. Social factors, such as bullying, work or school difficulties, or experiences of abuse, can also play a role.
Recovery from an eating disorder is possible, even though it may seem overwhelming at the moment. It is essential to recognize that everyone’s journey to recovery is unique. While the thought of leaving behind familiar patterns and fears may be daunting, envisioning the benefits and what recovery means to you can be a motivating factor. Remember, it is never too early or too late to seek help.
If you suspect you may have an eating disorder, reaching out to your GP (General Practitioner) is a crucial first step. Although your GP may not specialize in eating disorders, they can assess any physical symptoms and provide referrals to specialist eating disorder services.
Available Treatment Options
Various treatment approaches are available for eating disorders, depending on the individual’s specific needs, the severity of the disorder, and personal circumstances. Talking therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), family therapy, or psychotherapy, provides a safe space to explore thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to the disorder.
Additionally, during therapy, developing a structured eating plan to ensure proper nutritional intake may be recommended. If an individual has been underweight for an extended period, a GP may conduct a bone health assessment, as prolonged low weight can lead to reduced bone strength.
Guided self-help programs are also available for individuals with bulimia or binge eating disorder. These programs involve completing workbook exercises and receiving short sessions with a practitioner.
Supporting a Loved One
If someone you care about is showing signs of an eating disorder, encourage them to seek professional help. Offering to accompany them to their GP appointment can provide valuable support. Reassure them that they are valued, that you are there to listen without judgment or criticism, and that you support their journey towards recovery.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or seeking more information, the following resources can provide invaluable support:
- Beat: This charity offers support, advice, and online resources for individuals with eating disorders.
- The National Centre for Eating Disorders: This organization provides resources for individuals with eating disorders and offers training for professionals.
- TalkED: TalkED offers ongoing care, practical guidance, and support for individuals with eating disorders and their families and friends.
Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength and the first step towards a healthier, happier future.