It's estimated that nearly 30million people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the US, with someone dying as a direct result ever 62 minutes.
While anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating are perhaps the most widely-known of clinical eating disorders, there are several other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFEDs) and Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorders (ARFIDs) to be aware of.
Most of us, particularly westerners, have a hyper personal relationship with food. It connects us to our families and favorite pastimes, but also directly correlates to our health and beauty ideals.
Bombarded with images of the “perfect” body from childhood, nutritional education often falls to second to the pressures of obtaining a celebrity physique, one that promises popularity, adoration, and success.
Under such pressures, it can be easy to mistake strict dieting practices as the norm, and not, in fact, the symptoms of a greater eating disorder.
Aesthetics may not be the only driving factor behind an eating disorder. Genetics, trauma, anxiety, and the need for control are also commonly reported motivators, especially in teens and young women.
Common eating disorders and their symptoms
So how can you differentiate between sensibly conscious eating habits and the problematic symptoms of an eating disorder? Below we'll discuss the most common eating disorders, the overall tell-tale signs, and how to address them.
What it is: Anorexia refers to that act of severely limiting or eliminating one's food intake.
Symptoms: Severe and noticeable weight loss, obsession with body image and intense fear of weight gain, fixation on calorie counting and recipe collecting while simultaneously consuming the minimal amount of food, distorted body image, excessive exercise, especially following any food consumption
What it is: Bulimia is marked by the consumption of normal to large quantities of food, immediately followed by a purging ritual such as induced vomiting, bowel movement, or exercise. However, Bulimics typically prefer to induce vomiting, and usually maintain a normal weight, as opposed to anorexics.
Symptoms: Normal to excessive consumption of food followed by induced vomiting and/or bowel movement and exercise, distorted body image, and obsession with weight gain. Those with bulimia can also suffer from severe dehydration, stomach inflammation, tooth erosion, and hormonal imbalances.
Binge Eating Disorder
What is is: Binge Eating Disorder is marked by the erratic and excessive consumption of food, as part of an inconsistent dietary pattern. For example, one with binging tendencies may keep a fairly normal eating routine, then suddenly gorge themselves on above-the-recommended portions of food. Unlike bulimics, those with binge eating disorders do not purge after eating.
Symptoms: rapid consumption of large amounts of food, followed by feelings of guilt and lack of control.
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
What is is: Once dismissed as picky eating, ARFID refers to one with extreme aversion or lack of interest in certain foods by way of scents, tastes, colors, textures, or personal correlations.
Symptoms: Restrictive or avoidant food intake that ultimately limits one's consumption of necessary calories and nutrients, abhorrence to eating in the company of others, noticeable weight loss or poor development with heavy reliance on vitamins and in more extreme cases, tube feeding.
Symptoms of other eating disorders
Additional eating disorders include Pica, in which the individual craves non-food substances such as chemicals, hair, paper, soap and dirt, and Rumination Disorder, in which food consumption is followed by forced regurgitation. Both of these are somewhat newly discovered disorders, and information is continuing to be collected.
Additional Symptoms of an Eating Disorder may include:
- Preoccupation with one's weight, obsessing over imagined pounds gained or excessive caloric consumption
- Erratic eating patterns, with no set meal times or portions
- Fixation on or “keeping track” of what others consume, often causing discomfort and guilt in their presence
- Frequent and/or extreme dieting and exercise expressed through a need to “burn off” calories
- Irritability and mood swings
- Sleep disruption
- Impaired immune functioning
What Can You Do?
A healthy relationship to food is vital to living a balanced and enjoyable life, and it's important to seek professional help for yourself or another if you witness any of the symptoms listed above.
While most of us will occasionally cut back on food intake to trim some excess holiday pounds or prepare for a special event, eating disorders are an ongoing state of dietary disruption, which in turn affects one's mental, emotional, and physical state.
Fortunately there are a number of professional fields dedicated to addressing the symptoms of eating disorders, as well as working to overcome them.
A nutritionist can educate you on the importance of maintaining a healthy diet and deeper connection to and appreciation of food.
Additionally, they will be able to assess your personal body type, genetic history, and individual nutrient needs to make sure your diet is serving you in the best possible way.
Additional help can be found in professional counselors trained to examine the underlying causes of an eating disorder, either in yourself or a loved one, and work towards overcoming them.
For example, many eating disorders are a result of a traumatic ordeal, and a licensed counselor can help you through the necessary steps to recognizing and resolving the aftermath.
You can seek the assistance of an in-office counselor, or take advantage of the increasingly popular online counseling platform, with the latter proving especially beneficial to those with transportation and scheduling challenges.
If you feel you may be exhibiting the signs of an eating disorder, it's important not to feel ashamed–part of being human is undergoing such struggles, and coming out of them triumphant.
You deserve a lasting healthy and exuberant bond with food, and it's never too late to attain that.