Eating Disorder Awareness Guide

Written by Michele Wheat

Human standards for what is considered attractive have changed throughout different times and cultures. Pressure to conform to these measures of beauty can manifest in different ways, but one of the most dangerous is through the development of an eating disorder. An eating disorder is a type of mental illness that negatively affects the way an individual views themselves and how they eat. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa

Individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa have a fear of gaining weight or being fat and will take extreme steps to avoid these outcomes, such as self-starvation and an unhealthy amount of exercise. The exact cause of anorexia isn't known, but there are factors that can contribute to its development, such as family conflict, depression, and pressure to be thin. Anorexia can manifest in two different types of the disease. Restrictive anorexia is extreme weight loss through the restriction of calories. Purging anorexia is when weight loss is fueled by vomiting or forced diarrhea.

An official diagnosis of anorexia needs to be done by a professional, but there are some symptoms that can be easily identified. Due to the lack of food, an individual may experience dizziness or fainting spells, may feel colder than usual, and can experience more difficulty thinking or concentrating. Individuals with anorexia will skip meals or severely restrict their food intake, and this can manifest in extreme weight loss. Other symptoms may include the growth of fine, downy hair on the body, a cessation or decline in menstrual periods in women, and dental deterioration.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is primarily characterized by the sporadic eating of massive amounts of food, called binging. After binging, the individual forces themselves to vomit or defecate, called purging, in order to counteract the binge itself. It's important to note that not all bulimics purge. In lieu of purging, extreme exercise or fasting between binges may occur. As with anorexia, bulimia can be caused by societal pressure, stress in daily life, low self-esteem, or even a job that requires the individual to maintain a specific look.

One of the warning signs of bulimia can be found near the wrist. There will often be calluses or bruising on the knuckles and backs of the hands caused by the teeth during the process of inducing vomiting. Tooth and gum damage, often in the form of lost enamel or a gray tint, will develop from the frequent encounters with stomach acid. Bulimics will typically visit the restroom immediately after a meal to purge. And swollen glands around the jaw can give their face a puffy appearance.

Binge Eating Disorder

Similar to bulimia, binge eating disorder is defined by eating extremely large amounts of food. However, there is typically no purging or exercise afterward, which typically results in weight gain. Binge eating can develop while an individual is on a diet or while an individual is struggling with feelings of stress, depression, or low self-esteem. Binge eating disorder can result in obesity, but often, the symptoms manifest in emotional and behavioral ways.

Emotional symptoms of binge eating can include feelings of shame, embarrassment, and seeking food as a way to relieve stress. Binge eaters may secretly hide food, continue eating even when they feel full, and eat continuously throughout the day. An individual suffering from binge eating disorder may not look physically malnourished, but the additional calories can quickly add up to serious health concerns. Unhealthy weight gain and obesity can lead to diabetes, heart complications, and even sleep apnea.

How to Help

There exists, even today, the idea that eating disorders can be cured with a rebuke and a slap on the wrist. Eating disorders are much more complex than a simple habit, though, since they are innately connected with an individual's feelings of self-worth. If someone has an eating disorder, they are already focusing on their eating habits and appearance. Instead of mentioning either of those, ask how the person is doing on an emotional level. The person may be encouraged to seek help, but they should not be forced to do so. If the individual's health is of immediate concern, contact a professional for further advice. Above all else, remain kind and compassionate. Recovery is a process, and one of the best ways to help an individual through recovery is to remain supportive throughout the entirety of the journey.