Eating disorders are among the most misunderstood mental illnesses out there. Due to many misconceptions and stereotypes portrayed in movies and books, a lot of people misinterpret the signals and symptoms that should’ve set alarm bells ringing. Many even think that eating disorders are lifestyle choices. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Eating disorders like bulimia nervosa, binge eating, and anorexia nervosa now have the highest mortality rate among psychiatric diseases. These disorders also affect all kinds of people—any age, gender, ethnicity, or background. These are medical conditions that severely impact a person’s physical and emotional state.
As there are about 70 million people worldwide suffering from these illnesses, knowing the signs and the symptoms could save lives. That’s why establishing ‘Eating disorder awareness week’ (February 21-27 this year) is essential in raising awareness and dispelling misconceptions.
Signs and symptoms of an eating disorder
There are several types of eating disorders. The most common are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED). Those who suffer from these illnesses worry about their appearance, diet, and weight, especially young people who suffer from these illnesses. With the added pressure of trying to look attractive and fit in at the age when bodies are changing, differentiating the symptoms from normal self-consciousness can be tricky.
However, keep in mind that some signs, when added with others, are red flags that you can watch out for. Some of these are the following:
- Dieting or restricting food groups
Someone with an eating disorder would always make excuses to avoid eating, like faking an upset stomach or being full. They would also avoid putting themselves in situations where there’s food involved. Often, they’d only consume smaller portions or food with low-calorie counts. They may also avoid entire food categories like fats or carbohydrates.
Eating disorders can also manifest through obsessive calorie-counting. Sufferers may show an interest in studying food labels and weighing food portions. Some would also develop eating rituals like excessive chewing, cutting food up, or moving food around on their plates. Some use stimulants like amphetamines or prescription drugs for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) like Ritalin or Adderall to suppress their appetites.
Another sign of an eating disorder is purging. Purging is typically done after consuming an inordinate amount of food. People suffering from bulimia nervosa usually do this; they purge themselves by taking diuretics or laxatives, intense exercising, or forcing themselves to vomit.
You’ll notice them disappearing discreetly after a meal or taking frequent toilet breaks. They’d shower, bathe frequently, or let the water run to drown out purging noises. As anyone can notice the lingering smell of vomit, they use perfumes, breath mint, or mouthwash to mask the smell. There’ll also be periods of fasting and excessive weight and body fixation.
- Binge eating
Binge eating is a repeated episode of quickly consuming huge amounts of food. Feelings of guilt or shame usually follow these episodes. Because people who suffer from these disorders also hide and hoard various foodstuffs, there may be some unexplained disappearance of food in your household.
Moreover, those who suffer from eating disorders tend to hide secrets and isolate themselves; they may eat normally in front of others, but they could indulge in private or at night when alone.
Showing support to someone with an eating disorder
These disorders cause trouble with a person’s attitude toward food. At its core, an eating disorder warps a person’s view on self-image. Someone with this illness uses food to deal with traumatic emotions or feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. What happens is that people with these disorders no longer have the capacity to view themselves objectively. They become fixated with weight and food, to the point that these concerns dominate their lives.
Identifying the issues beneath the obsessions is an excellent step toward recovery. Speaking up is crucial if you have friends or family members who exhibit these signs. Showing your support is also a critical part of their recovery. Keep in mind that a person with this disorder might not accept or even realize that they’re in the grips of this illness. As in other mental illnesses, the best chance of treatment is going to a mental health professional.
Below are several ways of showing your support:
- Let them know that they’re always welcome and that you care
A person with this illness may shun the company of other people. They may resist your approach, but you mustn’t give up on them. Be patient—continuing to engage them will show them that they’re still valued as individuals.
- Avoid criticism or disapproval
They’ll just build more walls around them as a result of criticism and admonition. Show your concern by referring to behaviors and particular situations you’ve observed. Explain why these are concerning. At this stage, you’re not offering to solve their problems. You’re just letting them know that you’re concerned about their health and that help is always available to them. It’ll also help if you tell them you love them. Building their self-esteem is vital to get them through this difficult stage in their lives.
- Maintain open lines of communication
They may not respond favorably to your efforts at first, but the important thing is they know you’re there. If they decide they want to talk, let them. Remember, no matter if they seem out of touch, they shouldn’t hear any judgment from you. Let them know you have their backs, and when they’re ready to share and seek help, you’re there for them.
Eating disorders are psychological disorders that are often misunderstood. These disorders have the highest mortality rate among mental illnesses; therefore, awareness is vital. Pay attention to the signs and learn how to support those who suffer from eating disorders by spreading awareness and showing concern. You may be able to help save their lives.
- “Mortality and risk assessment for anorexia nervosa in acute-care hospitals: a nationwide administrative database analysis”, Source: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-020-2433-8
- “Eating disorder statistics 2022”, Source: https://www.singlecare.com/blog/news/eating-disorder-statistics/#eating-disorders-worldwide
- “What are Eating Disorders?”, Source: https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/eating-disorders/what-are-eating-disorders
- “When Taking ADHD Meds Is the Same As Having an Eating Disorder”, Source: https://www.mic.com/articles/130421/when-taking-adhd-meds-is-the-same-as-having-an-eating-disorder
- “Eating Disorders, Self Mutilation and Unexpressed Emotions: A Deadly Relationship”, Source: https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/eating-disorders-self-mutilation-and-unexpressed-emotions-a-deadly-relationship/