Eating Disorders: How They Happen and What To Do About Them
What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders (ED) are mental health conditions that involve a pattern of behavior characterized by excessive concern with food, weight, or shape. This behavior may include restricting food intake, engaging in purging behaviors, or both. Anorexia nervosa (AN) is the most severe form of ED, which is characterized by a distorted body image, extreme fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, and severe self-loathing.
Bulimia nervosa (BN) is more common than Anorexia nervosa and is characterized by repeated episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviors. Binge eating disorder (BED) is a less severe form of ED, characterized by episodes of uncontrolled eating, but without compensatory behaviors.
Who Is More Prone To Eating Disorders?
EDs are more common in women than in men and usually develop during adolescence. But for all the reasons described below, they are much more common in young people than they were in the past. It is estimated that about one in four girls and one in 10 boys will experience an ED at some point in their lives.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders can have both biological and psychological origins and are thought to be a complex combination of genetic, environmental, and developmental factors. Research suggests that eating disorders may involve biological changes in the brain and hormones that control appetite and eating behavior. The exact nature of these changes is still unknown, but researchers suspect that they may be related to the development of the hypothalamus, a small region of the brain that controls many aspects of bodily function, including metabolism, hunger, thirst, and sex drive.
The most important environmental factor seems to be stress and anxiety, which may increase the risk of developing EDs. Another possible explanation is that EDs may arise in some people as a way of coping with emotional or relational problems in their lives. In other words, they may be an attempt to self-medicate or “self-soothe” with food.
What Are The Effects Of Eating Disorders?
People with EDs experience physical, psychological, and social consequences, and they can be very difficult to treat.
EDs can lead to malnutrition, which can cause serious health complications. For example, the body’s metabolism can become so slow that it cannot burn calories efficiently, which can lead to weight gain. Malnutrition can also impair the immune system and cause anemia.
Many people with EDs have a distorted sense of body image and feel intensely unhappy with their bodies. They may engage in excessive exercise, dieting, and vomiting, in order to control their weight or to lose weight. This can lead to more severe forms of malnutrition, including starvation and even death. EDs may also affect a person’s self-esteem and self-confidence and can cause depression and anxiety.
EDs can also have serious psychological consequences, including anxiety, low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness. People with EDs often experience extreme guilt and shame about their eating behaviors and often hide their symptoms from others. This can lead to social isolation and difficulty maintaining relationships.
How Can You Help Someone With An Eating Disorder?
It is important to remember that the causes of eating disorders are complex and not always easy to pinpoint. There is no single “cure” for an ED, and treatment requires an individualized approach that addresses the many factors involved in its development.
As part of a comprehensive program of treatment, a person who has developed an ED may be prescribed medication, receive psychotherapy, and engage in nutritional counseling. Many people who develop an ED at a young age can recover without long-term consequences, but if they develop a more severe form of ED, they may need to seek additional help. For example, some people with Anorexia nervosa are hospitalized for treatment of malnutrition or are placed on life-threatening diets.
Some people with EDs may also benefit from participation in a support group such as a local eating disorders group or a national organization like the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). In addition, many community mental health centers provide services for people with eating disorders, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline provides 24/7 access to mental health and substance abuse specialists who can help.