An eating disorder is a style of eating in which the person has a serious fear of weight gain and adjusts their diet to avoid becoming fat to such an extent that their health begins to decline.
Someone with an eating disorder will constantly worry about how many calories they consume, will weigh themselves frequently and will avoid catching sight of themselves in a mirror. Eating disorders can take the form of excessive or insufficient food consumption and the sufferer will develop an unhealthy obsession with their weight.
Anyone of any age can develop an eating disorder, however it is most common among young women aged between thirteen and seventeen years. The rate of eating disorders found in men and boys is growing however. It appears that over-exercise and the desire to gain a more muscular physique are common contributors. This article will focus on two common eating disorders; anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
What causes eating disorders?
As yet, there is no definite answer to this question. However, scientists have suggested several possible causes or contributory factors as to how eating disorders come about. The first of these is genetics. It is believed that certain genes make people more vulnerable to eating disorders. Social pressure, especially an environment when celebrities and other notable figures, and sometimes even the people we encounter in our daily lives, possess ideal bodies, has also been suggested as a contributory factor.
This is especially noticeable in environments where thinness is encouraged, such as dance schools, where the level of eating disorders is generally high. Depression has also been linked to the beginnings of eating disorders as the depressive, in order to cope with their emotional distress, may turn to food for comfort.
What is anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa is where the sufferer wants to keep their weight as low as possible and drastically reduce their calorie intake, often to dangerous levels and even to the point of starvation. It affects around one in every one hundred and fifty fifteen-year old girls and one fifteen-year old boy in every thousand. Common behavioural signs to look for in a suspected case of anorexia include excessive exercise, an unsatisfiable desire to lose weight – even when the BMI is already dangerously low, obsessively checking their current weight and avoiding meal-times.
Other related traits which are common among anorexics are eating “healthily” – including fruit and vegetables, but it is not possible to obtain an acceptable amount of energy from these alone. Also, anorexics may frequently exercise, consume diet pills and smoke more often in a bid to keep their weight down, they may shy away from social situations where they could be exposed to food, such as eating out or going to parties and they may also load themselves with water before they weigh themselves.
Anorexics may also experience physical decline such as feelings of dizziness or light-headedness, hair loss and dry skin.
What is bulimia?
Bulimia is both an eating disorder and a mental health condition. Similar to anorexia, it involves an irrational fear of gaining weight. Where bulimia differs, though, is that the sufferer will experience periods in which they eat to excess, often in an uncontrollable fashion known as binge-eating, and then going to extreme lengths to deprive themselves of the excess calories.
Common methods of doing this include self-induced vomiting, the taking of laxatives to bring about diarrhoea and, similar to anorexia, an excessive amount of exercise. In another similar way, someone suffering from bulimia will subject themselves to severe criticism regarding both weight and shape. They can also experience mood changes and feelings of anxiety and tension. Bulimia can be a difficult illness to spot in others as those who live with it will often hide it.
Anorexia and bulimia affect people both psychologically and physically. Those who live with either disorder can experience difficulties with sleeping and find their level of concentration and ability to think declining unless it revolves around food. From a physical standpoint, eating may become harder due to the shrinking of the stomach and the sufferer may become tired and weak as their metabolism grinds to a halt. If the sufferer is in their teens, their growth may be stunted.
A dearth of certain nutrients may result in brittle bones. In extreme cases, anorexia and bulimia can be fatal. Anorexia currently has the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder.
Excessive vomiting may erode the enamel on the sufferer’s teeth due to its acidic nature, induce heart palpitations and lead to kidney damage. Frequent use of laxatives can result in persistent stomach pain and damage the bowel muscles resulting in a dependency on laxatives in order to defecate. Both vomiting and laxative use may bring about drastic swings in the sufferer’s weight.
Generally, treatment for anorexia will consist of a combination of talking therapy and weight gain supervised by a professional. Depending on the age of the patient, the treatment methods may differ. For adults, cognitive behavioural therapy may be offered. This will assist with the management of feelings, the better understanding of nutrition and the risks of starvation and the making of healthy food choices.
Two specialist forms of talking therapy for anorexia exist. Maudsley Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults (MANTRA) helps the patient to identify what has brought their eating disorder on and helps to alter behavioural patterns. Specialist supportive clinical management (SSCM) aims to teach the patient about nutrition and the effects their eating habits have and how their symptoms are produced. Younger patients, especially teenagers, can access family therapy and adolescent-focused psychotherapy, both of which are tailored towards coping with fears and learning skills to help overcome the disorder.
Those suffering from bulimia can access a self-help programme to help them overcome their disorder. This will include how to make realistic meal plans and how to monitor what they eat. CBT is also available for both older and younger patients. For younger patients, family therapy is available, as it is for anorexics.
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